Friday, November 23, 2007

Joey Pigza Loses Control

Gantos, Jack. 2000. Joey Pigza Loses Control. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0374399891

Plot summary

Joey Pigza tries to spend six weeks visiting his estranged dad. His mother has warned Joey that his dad is "wired like you, only he's bigger" (8). Once Joey gets to dad's house, everything changes. The normalcy that Joey has felt with his medication is literally flushed down the toilet when his dad decides that he knows what is best for Joey. Their relationship is like riding a roller coaster, and finally Joey wants to get off the ride.

Critical analysis

I did not realize when I picked to read this book that I would be reading about one of my students. Joey's voice in this novel seemed accurate of the internal dialogue that a kid with ADD or ADHD has. He feels like he's melting. He feels like he's losing control. He knows rationally that things he does are not appropriate, but he cannot stop himself. As I read this book, I felt more sympathy and compassion for my student. I began to understand what he must go through on a daily basis.

When Joey first arrives at his father's house, his dad is very excited about making up for lost time. He wants Joey to play baseball on the team he coaches. When sizing his hand for a glove, they hold up their hands together. Joey feels "a jolt as if he had a joy buzzer in his" (23). Joey's dad is full of these jolts of energy.

Joey's dad Carter is quite a character. His is a selfish idiot and a hypocrite. He thinks he knows what is best for Joey. He continually says, "I've been thinking" which usually means trouble for Joey. When Dad takes Joey to Storybook Land (Dad's place of epiphany), he won't stop talking. Joey states, "I knew how Dad felt about everything. But Dad didn't know how I felt about anything" (29). I think kids feel this way about their parents, whether they are visiting or constantly in their lives. Kids want to be heard, and Joey's dad is too busy thinking of himself to listen to Joey.

Grandma is the comic relief as well as the sage. She understands her son and Joey. She can tell when their life is about to spin out of control. She's seen the patterns too many times. Yet, she endures living with her son and continuing her own self-destructive patterns. She smokes, even though she uses an oxygen tank. She "borrows" Joey's emergency phone money to buy cigarettes (or rather has Joey buy them). She has Joey push her in a grocery cart to the story or park to play golf. Grandma explains, "'I did have a little handcart for the oxygen but Carter said it cost too much to rent so now he just gets me the tank with the shoulder case and because it's so heavy I can't get very far'" (42).

Each of the 14 chapters are named. Most of the names are places in which the story will take place (The Mall, Storybook Land, Downtown). The story unfolds naturally and as the book progresses, the reader sees that this kid is wired. He spins himself around to figure out where he's going in the city. He practices throwing rocks in the house. He tries to form a relationship with his dad, but his dad is so self-absorbed that he cannot. Joey thinks about "what it is like to be normal" (115). Without his medication, he won't be "normal."

Readers feel compassion for Joey as he tries to do the right thing, but keeps making wrong choices. Joey tells himself that he's losing control and the reader sees it happening but cannot do anything to help Joey. I just wanted to scream at Carter when he flushed Joey's medicine down the toilet. "One by one he took my patches out of the box and balled them up in his fist and dropped them into the bowl" (95). Joey feels helpless as he watches his "normalcy" go down the drain. Carter tries to tell Joey he knows what is best, but his own life is spiraling.

Readers will identify with this book even if they don't need medication to be "normal." Gantos uses everyday experiences to show how coping for some can be more difficult than for others. Even though the story takes place in Pittsburgh, it could be any town.

Review excerpts

BULLETIN of the CENTER for CHILDREN'S BOOKS: "Joey's view of the world is compelling regardless of what he's dealing with, and it's realistic in both its perceptions and their limitations. Characters are sharply and truthfully drawn."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Readers will be drawn in immediately to the boy's gripping first-person narrative and be pulled pell-mell through episodes that are at once hilarious, harrowing, and ultimately heartening as Joey grows to understand himself and the people around him.


Read other books about Joey Pigza:

Gantos, Jack. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. ISBN 0064408337

Gantos, Jack. I am Not Joey Pigza. ISBN 0374399417

*Have students rewrite the ending where Joey and his dad do win the baseball championship. What happens next in their lives? Do they grow closer? Will Joey live with his mom or dad? Will he start taking his medication again?

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Step from Heaven

Na, An. 2001. A Step from Heaven. Asheville, NC: Front Street. ISBN 1886910588

Plot summary
This is a story of survival. Young Ju is a Korean immigrant whose family left Han Gook to come to America (specifically California) for a better life. Young Ju is suspended between adopting American ways and keeping her Korean heritage alive. Young Ju's family is not what it appears on the outside. Her father is abusive and an alcoholic. Her mother is obedient but strong. Young Ju is trying to cover up her reality and her brother is rebelling against everything. What becomes of this family makes a compelling story of how much a family can endure and overcome.

Critical analysis
This young adult novel is not just about a Korean family coming to America. It is a novel about how families cover up the truth and pretend that everything will be OK when their world is falling all around them. Young Ju's family is trying to survive moving to a new country without the benefit of knowing the language or customs before coming. They must find their own way.

The plot is absolutely believable. Even for readers that are native born Americans, the issues this family faces are universal. Kids hide where they live; mothers hide bruises left by drunk fathers; friends don't know each other as they think they do.

Each chapter is named and could be read as a stand alone story. The title of the book is also the name of an early chapter in which Young Ju's father explains that America "is a step from heaven" (28).

I enjoyed how Na used Korean words sprinkled through the story. In the early chapters, there are more words in Korean, but as Young Ju learns English, Na includes fewer Korean words. The parents still speak in Korean, but the new generation (Young Ju and her brother) do not. This adds to the believability of the story.

When Young Ju first goes to school, it took me a minute to realize that what Na was writing was English, but it was filtered through Young Ju's ears. She heard, "Ah ri cal, co mo ve he" when the "witch teacher" said, "All right class. Come over here." (31). She also refers to crayons as "color sticks" (32). I think this is an accurate description to a person who has never seen crayons.

The first sign of abuse shows up relatively early in the book. "I do not see Apa's hand. It is too fast. I only hear the slap, loud as breaking glass" (37). Young Ju's father has just slapped her mother for wanting too much. The more frustrated Apa gets with his life in America, the more beatings his wife endures. Apa occasionally hits the children, and Young Ju finally reaches a point to save her family, which becomes a turning point in the novel. "Please...send help....My father is killing my mother" (141). I wondered how many children make this kind of call every day to protect themselves or their family.

I found this novel to be beautifully written even with the horrific abuse. The ending is hopeful for Young Ju's family. I think teen readers will be relieved that sometimes atrocious situations do end happily ever after.

Review excerpts
BOOKLIST (starred review): "This isn't a quick read, especially at the beginning when the child is trying to decipher American words and customs, but the coming-of-age drama will grab teens and make them think of their own conflicts between home and outside. As in the best writing, the particulars make the story universal."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Each of the chapters in this emotionally succinct novel might be read as a short story, although the plot-the acclimation of one young girl to a new culture and to her own family-is steady and at times suspenseful."

*Read Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club ISBN 0399134204.

*Have a class discussion about local services available to teens to help them if they are in similar situations. Where can they go that is safe? Who can they call (anonymously?) for help? What should they do if they suspect a friend is being abused? How can they stop the cycle?

*Create a "Getting to Know Our School" brochure that gives pictures of important places, with the accompaning English word. This might help new students (ESOL) become more familiar with the school as well as teaching them the correct words.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Giver

Lowry, Lois. 1993. The Giver. New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 0329379259

Plot summary
Twelve year old Jonas lives in a perfect world. His world is so perfect that he never has to make a choice or decision about anything. Everything is decided for him, even his job. However, once he begins his job training, he realizes that he wants choices, and his world is not perfect. This is a story of struggle as Jonas learns that his world is not all there is to living.

Critical analysis
When I began reading this book, I thought this imaginary world that Lowry creates was sterile. I didn't think I would like reading about this perfect futuristic world. Every aspect of life is controlled. "Life here is so orderly, so predictable--so painless" (103). There are ceremonies to commemorate naming, aging, job placement, and even dying (which is referred to as a "releasing"). There is a loud speaker that reminds the community of infractions against the rules. Any infraction "infringed on the community's sense of order and success" (46).

I was intrigued by the title and needed to find out more about Jonas the more I read. Would he be a giver? What would he give? However, in these twenty-three unnamed chapters, I learned that Jonas first became a receiver so that later he, too, could be a giver.

As Jonas begins his training as Receiver of Memory, "the most honored [job] in our community"(61), I realize that the word of Sameness that Lowry creates means there is no color in the world. There also is no choice or decision making. Once Jonas learns of these things, he begins to question his own world. He desires choices. There are no talking animals in the story, but there are magical beings. The Giver touches Jonas to give him memories of times past.

The aspect of good versus evil is present in this story. Jonas must decide that everything he has been taught from birth might be a lie. "Now Jonas had a thought that he had never had before. This new thought was frightening....What if they had all been instructed: You may lie?" (71). His own first lie comes almost sixty pages later when he lies to his parents.

Lowry capitalizes words like Sameness and Elsewhere to indicate their importance to the community's balance. "If you don't fit in, you can apply for Elsewhere and be released" (48). This sounds like a desirable option until you learn later in the book was exactly the releasing process is. When Jonas questions what happens to the things he sees in the memories, the Giver explains what happened to those things. "Climate control. Snow made growing food difficult...It wasn't a practical thing, so it became obsolete when we went to Sameness" (84).

Jonas might be considered an archetypal hero because he does cross the threshold of safety into an unknown world where he is able to survive the trials of the new environment. His adventure really begins with the first realization that his world is not the entire world. As he learns more memories, he becomes frustrated at his surroundings and wants to escape. The Giver (the protective figure) and Jonas form a plan, and Jonas takes the baby Gabriel (symbolic of hope for new generations) to Elsewhere. However, Jonas does not return home. In fact, Lowry leaves the ending open. The reader does not know if Jonas and Gabriel die, or if they become part of a new town that is not in Sameness.

When my students noticed I was reading this book, many commented that they loved this book or it was one of their favorite books. I was surprised by some of the students that commented because they are not necessarily the strongest of readers, but they remembered this book. I felt that I had to see what they liked so much and why this book left such a positive memory with them. When I finished the book, I had many questions. I wondered if a world like this could exist one day. What would I have done in Jonas' position? What would happen if people stopped caring for one another? I was able to talk about this book to my students that read this book and make another connection with them. I also think our conversations piqued curiosity in those students that have not read the book.

Review excerpts

PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY: "A storyline that hints at Christian allegory and an eerie futuristic setting."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "The author makes real abstract concepts, such as the meaning of a life in which there are virtually no choices to be made and no experiences with deep feelings. This tightly plotted story and its believable characters will stay with readers for a long time."


*Have a discussion about whether or not this type of society could exist and/or survive. What if you didn't have memories? How could a Committee of Elders become a true controlling force in society? What would you do in Jonas' position? What if no one could lie? What is a "perfect world"?

*Read other books about futuristic societies (i.e., Vonnegut, Bradbury, Orwell) and compare what the authors' visions for society include. Have some of these writers accurately predicted our reality?

Monday, November 5, 2007


LaFaye, A. 2004. Worth. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 1416913211

Plot summary
Eleven year old Nate suffers a farm injury that makes him unable to help on the family farm. His father decides that he needs help and brings in orphan John Worth to help. Nate feels that he is being worthless and being replaced. While Nate is going to school, John is learning how to work on the farm. As the two boys get to know one another, they find that they are more alike than they realized.

Critical analysis
Each chapter of this book is named. The story is told from 11 year old Nate Peales's point of view and carries an informal tone. After an accident mangles his leg, he feels like a freeloader "lying around" (11) not able to help his dad.

When Nate first goes to school, a "place like a root cellar--dirt walls, air choked up with must and bugs" (34), he finds out that he's not book smart. "They'd all studied things like map knowing. Called it a geo-something or other" (28). He feels like "pretty much all the kids hated me" which is a common idea among adolescents.

The setting is Nebraska, but the time is not specific. The reader can gather from the clues given in the text that this story takes place before automobiles (or at least before the automobile reached the rural farmlands), as the mode of transportation is horse-drawn wagon. "The jingle of tack and the rumble of the wagon said Pa headed out for town" (17). When the family moved to Nebraska, they furnished their house by Ma's "tinkering." "Brought in most of our house by tinker trade....We got an old table for fixing a brush rake....Chairs came to us through piecework" (13).

The reader also learns that living on a farm is not a glorified place. There is always something to be done and the threat of losing the crops is constant. Before moving to Nebraska, the reader learns that "locusts ate up all we had, left us with nothing to live on for the winter or pay the bank with, so Pad had to give them our farm" (25).

When Nate cannot work, Pa finds John Worth, a boy about Nate's age, from the Orphan Train. At first, Nate is resentful of John. "The only hint of happiness I got was when I heard Pa shouting at John Worth for doing something city dumb again" (38). As the story unfolds, Nate learns that John's life has been hard and unfair. too. Nate's mother is not happy about bringing in a child from a "no-account family" (31) but changes her mind some when she learns that John's family died in a tenement fire.

Due to a choking accident, the Peales' family lost a one year old child. Missy is not mentioned very often in the book, but it is one of the ties that bring Nate and John closer. Nate realizes that losing his sister is similar, but not as awful, as John losing his entire family to fire. Their relationship becomes less hostile and more friendly when they discover that there are similarities between the two of them. When John explains that he was scared running at night in the country, Nate remembers helping his mother one time in Chicago. "He [John] was afraid of the country and all the dangers he couldn't understand, just like me in the city" (87). I think that young readers can relate to this universal truth that we are more alike than we might at first realize.

Another aspect of history that LaFaye writes about is the highly emotional range wars. The battle of fencing in one's land became an issue as the country's population moved west. Cutting fences to let the cattle graze was a hanging offense. At the end of the story, Nate and John work together to stop fence cutters.

When I first picked up this book, I thought the title would be something about self-esteem (worth) and was tickled when I saw that "worth" was symbolic and one of the main character's names. When I finished the book and read the "About the Author" page, I was surprised at myself for assuming that the writer was male. Alexandria LaFaye writes a believable story from a male point of view.

Review excerpts
PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY: "LaFaye paints a realistic picture of the hardships for average families at the time the Orphan Train rode the rails."
SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "The author convincingly conveys the boys' gradual realization of the value of one another's friendship....A satisfying piece of historical fiction."

*Have a guest speaker bring in "props" from living on a farm, such as a pair of fence cutters or a wagon wheel to give students an idea of what life on a 19th century farm looked like.
*Have students write about a time when they discovered that someone was different than they first thought. How did their relationship change? Did the realization bring them closer or make them grow farther apart?
*Read more about Greek mythology (like Nate did at school) or books about settling Nebraska.
Bunting, Eve. Dandelions. ISBN 0152024077

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Eleanor Roosevelt

Freedman, Russell. 1993. Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 0899198627

Plot summary
Russell Freedman takes the reader into the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. He not only gives the facts of her remarkable life, but he gives the reader the story of her life. Eleanor comes alive in this book and is seen as one of the most remarkable women of her time. Freedman begins before Eleanor's birth and chronicles her education, her courtship and marriage to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the birth of her children, her activism, and her role in the political arena of the United States.

Critical analysis

I enjoyed reading this book because I felt transported into Eleanor's life. I've always admired Eleanor Roosevelt, and I feel that Russell Freedman creates a vivid picture of her through an objective point of view. She comes to life in this book instead of a one-dimensional caricature of someone in history. Freedman incorporates narrative with historical facts. One example is when Freedman writes, "Although FDR listened to his wife, he was keenly attuned to what he believed was politically possible" (116). Eleanor and Franklin had a partnership and Freeman relates to the reader how strong their relationship was in spite of their differences.

There are eleven chapters in this book and each chapter gives the reader another layer of who this woman truly was. Almost each chapter begins with an epigram quoting Eleanor. Included within the text are pictures, mostly gathered from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, that show Eleanor throughout her life. There are other pictures to supplement the time period, such as the picture of Polish Jews being marched off to death camps (130). I found the pictures captivating and a visual support of the text. I also enjoyed the sixteen page photo album at the back of the book that contained pictures from Eleanor's childhood through the 1960s. Following the photo album is a section about Eleanor's cottage, Val-Kill. Freedman explains that the cottage is open to the public and gives contact information to find out more. Freedman then gives a list of "Books about and by Eleanor Roosevelt" (189) for readers interested in reading more about Eleanor.

Each chapter follows a chronological order to explain what Eleanor's life was like at that particular time with the exception of Chapter One, the shortest chapter. Chapter One gives an overview of her life focusing mostly on her time as First Lady. Freedman gives a concluding paragraph stating, "For thirty years...Eleanor Roosevelt was the most famous and at times the most influential woman in the world. And yet those who knew her best were most impressed by her simplicity, by her total lack of self-importance" (3). Chapter Two then goes back to her childhood and begins the story of Eleanor's life.

Through Freedman's book, we learn what a strong and influential person Eleanor was. "Eleanor replied that she was sorry if her activities offended anyone, but she was determined to pursue her interests and express her beliefs. 'Everyone must live their own life in their own way and not according to anybody else's ideas,' she told a press conference" (111).

This book includes and index and can be read for research purposes. However, I recommend reading this for pleasure to learn more about Eleanor Roosevelt.

Review excerpts
PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY: "This impeccably researched, highly readable study of one of this country's greatest First Ladies is nonfiction at its best."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "Fans of Eleanor Roosevelt will enjoy this detailed anecdotal record of her life, while those unfamiliar with her life will count themselves among her admirers by the end ."

*Read Freedman's biography on Franklin Roosevelt to get a more complete picture of this influential duo.
*Create a fact or fiction game with questions based on Eleanor's life. This game can be used as an introductory assignment before reading the book or as a closing assignment to check for reading comprehension and recall.

*Read other books about Eleanor Roosevelt:
Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1: 1884-1933. ISBN 0140094601
Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 2: 1933-1938. ISBN 0670844985
Gerber, Robin. Leadership the Eleanor Roosevelt Way. ISBN 0735203245
Wigal, Donald. The Wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt. ISBN 0806524782

Thursday, November 1, 2007


Kadohata, Cynthia. 2004. Kira-Kira. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0689856393

Plot summary
What happens when a Japanese family must relocate to Georgia to survive, and their world falls apart no matter what they try to do to keep it intact? This is the story of Katie Takeshima and her family. The family moves to a Georgia so her parents can work in poultry factories. Katie relies upon her older sister Lynn for knowledge of their world. Lynn relies upon Katie to take care of her. As the story unfolds, the reader sees how unfair life can be, even to good people.

Critical analysis
The title of the book is explained in the first paragraphs of the book. "Kira-kira means 'glittering' in Japanese" (1). This is Katie's first word and one she uses to describe her world. However, it is really her sister Lynn that sees the beauty in the world around her, even when she is dying. I enjoyed how Kadohata included Japanese words in her narrative. This made the story more believable and realistic.

Kira-kira is also a contrast to the actual world of the Takeshima family. They are close, but it seems external forces keep knocking them down. First their store closes, and they must move to Georgia for work. The conditions described in the book of these poultry plants are horrible. "The factory workers weren't allowed to take unscheduled breaks, so they all wore pads in case they needed to use the bathroom" (97). The family tries to save money to buy a house, but Lynn's medical condition causes them to work more. "My father's hours changed sometimes. His newest schedule was to work for ten to twelve hours, then eat and sleep a few hours at the hatchery, and then get up and work six hours. When he wasn't working at his main hatchery, he worked in a different one in another town" (84).

Through Katie's story, we see the prejudice of the 1950s Deep South. When driving from Iowa to Georgia, the family stops at a motel for sleep. The innkeeper ignores the family at first, calls them Indians and then charges them "two dollars extra" for the room (28). Lynn warns Katie that "some of the kids at school may not say hello to you" (50) which Katie doesn't understand. Once she enters school, she quickly learns that her sister was correct. She is treated differently because she is Japanese.

Katie understands the poultry industry supports Georgia's economy, "but that didn't stop many people who did not work with poultry from looking down on those who did" (88). Katie is treated differently at school because her parents worked at the poultry plants and "the fact that I was Japanese were the two reasons the girls at school ignored me" (88). Katie and her brother Sam often went to work with their mother because there was no one to take care of them. The kids stayed in the car while the mom worked inside.

Kadohata does a terrific job describing how this Japanese family endures the hardships of the time and survives. They are treated unfairly by their employers and the townspeople. With each chapter, the family seems to struggle more and more and then the unthinkable happens. Their child Lynn has cancer and dies. The grief the family feels is so real, but it seems that even with this injustice, they cannot afford to grieve. They must go to work. "My mother and father became like zombies. They ate but didn't seem to taste their food....It looked as if we might lose the house because my parents still owed money on Lynn's medical bills" (226).

Emotionally, this was a hard book to read. I felt like I was with the family in these sixteen chapters. I could identify with Katie and how she felt like the black sheep because she wasn't Lynn. "I got straight C's at school....Lynn got straight A's. She loved school" (62). I felt the fatigue the parents felt by working so much to try and keep a roof over the family. I was shocked when I found out that Lynn had lymphoma. I felt the joy of baby Sam being born and then later of his leg being caught in the trap. I felt the father's anger at "the system" when his daughter died, and he had to release his anger on Mr. Lyndon's car. I was confused with Katie when her dad went to apologize. "'Apologize! But he doesn't know it was you! Dad! He doesn't even know. You don't have to apologize!' He looked at me as if he was very disappointed I'd said that. I didn't care. I just wanted to protect my father" (231).

Kadohata includes handwritten passages to represent the diary entries of Lynne or the essays Katie writes for school. Using this technique makes the passages seem like the young girls are the writers.

Review excerpts

PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY: "Katie's narrative begins almost as stream-of-consciousness, reflecting a younger child's way of seeing the world. But as she matures through the challenges her family faces, so does the prose. Kadohata movingly captures the family's sustaining love."

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: "This novel has the immediacy of an autobiographical account of love and loss and presents insightful glimpses of questionable labor practices and post-World War II discrimination against Japanese-Americans."


*Research how Japanese-Americans were treated throughout the United States during and after World War II. Was the South the only place of discrimination? What other places were Japanese-Americans allowed to work and what were the conditions?

*Research how other minority groups were treated post World War II.