Sunday, June 23, 2013

Book Review: How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell (1973)

Now that summer is officially here, it's time to introduce my summer reading project. Over the past few months, I have repeatedly come across books I remember from childhood that I have either never re-read, or haven’t re-read in a number of years. I decided that since there were so many, I would devote my summer Old School Sunday posts to re-reading these books, in what I am calling my Summer Re-Reading Program. This week, I am also starting my new schedule for the Dig Into Reading summer reading program at my library, so my reviews today, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday will all focus on that theme. Therefore, the first book I re-read was How to Eat Fried Worms.

I remember How to Eat Fried Worms as a book that was assigned to me in early elementary school. I can’t remember many of the details, but I have a feeling the assignment was from my beloved third grade teacher, who remains my favorite teacher of all time. If I am right about the timeline, it has been roughly 22 years since the last time I read this book. Basically, all I remembered when I brought the book home from the library is that some kids dare each other to eat worms, and that somewhere in the story, there is a bad word. As it turns out, my summary wasn’t far off, just lacking in details.

The main character of the book is Billy, who is dared by some boys in the neighborhood to eat 15 worms in as many days. If he succeeds, he wins 50 dollars, and if he loses, he has to fork over 50 dollars to his buddies. The rules of the bet are that the other boys get to choose the worms, but that Billy gets to choose how they are prepared, and what condiments are used to mask the taste. When it starts to look like Billy might actually achieve his goal, the other boys start trying to sneakily break the rules so they won’t have to come up with the money to satisfy the bet.

This book is very short, as are the chapters, and much of the story is told in dialogue amongst the boys as they set forth the terms of the bet, and then begin to serve Billy the worms. The bet is really the sole focus of the book, and the only subplots in the story relate directly to Billy’s difficulties in completing the challenge. Even so, despite the limited glimpses we have into the lives of the characters, each of them - even some of the parents - comes fully to life through his or her reactions to the bet and the way they each speak and behave. There is very little exposition - rather, everything is revealed slowly, one step at a time, as each worm is eaten.

As I mentioned, there is one instance of foul language ("bastard"), but it’s said in a moment of real anger, and I don’t think it bothered me much as a kid. I think I remember the aforementioned teacher taking some time to talk about using that word, but even the details of that situation are mostly fuzzy inmy memory at this point. I imagine the use of this word is why this book has been challenged in some places, but I don’t think it’s that big a deal within the context of the larger story. I suppose adults reading it aloud could just change that word if it was that much of a problem, but I think most kids would understand not to go around calling people bastards, in the same way that most kids I know would not eat a worm, no matter how much money was on the line.

Though it has been years, everything from the illustrations (by Emily Arnold McCully) to the layout of the book and the chapter titles felt really comforting to me, like visiting an old friend or wrapping up in a favorite blanket. I didn’t have many moments where I remembered a specific line or scene, but I had a strong sense of nostalgia as I read and a definite sense of recognition that I had been this way before. Though How to Eat Fried Worms is now 40 years old, there is very little that should keep contemporary kids from reading it. Boys will always be fascinated by eating disgusting things, and all kids love to read about bets and squabbles among kids their own age. How to Eat Fried Worms will be on prominent display in my library throughout this summer’s Dig Into Reading program, and I hope a whole new generation of readers will create their own deeply ingrained memories associated with the story.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Book Review: Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills (2013)

A model student, Sierra Shepard is the least likely seventh grader to be expelled for bringing a knife to school. Unfortunately, one day, she grabs her mother’s lunch instead of her own, and her mother has packed a knife in her lunch bag, planning to use it to cut an apple. Ever the conscientious citizen, Sierra turns the knife into the school office immediately upon discovering it, assuming it will be understood that she made an honest mistake. The principal, however, is not understanding. Rather, he cites the school’s zero tolerance policy, and sends Sierra to in-school suspension pending a hearing. For the first time in her life, Sierra is treated like a criminal, and though her father is ready to shame her principal into letting her off the hook, she is less certain that she shouldn’t be punished- or that she even wants to remain in a school that treats her so harshly.

Claudia Mills has written many school stories, but none is so timely as this 21st century tale. There are often reports on the news about kids bringing weapons to school, and also occasionally about kids who are wrongly accused or wrongfully punished for breaking a school’s zero tolerance policy. This book’s earnest main character takes readers inside such a sticky situation and gives them a firsthand look at the complications and consequences of applying a zero tolerance policy to every situation. Readers also have the opportunity to watch the way Sierra reacts to her new surroundings, where the other kids truly misbehave. Not only is this the story of a girl wrongfully accused, it is also the story of how this same girl’s eyes are opened to a segment of her school’s population which she has previously ignored, and how this experience broadens her horizons.

Zero Tolerance is a book I could easily sell to fans of Andrew Clements, especially those readers who have enjoyed Troublemaker and The Landry News. The issues presented in the story make it a logical choice for book groups or for classroom discussions, not just about the concept of zero tolerance, but also about misbehavior and what it means to be “good” or “bad.” It’s also a great example of a book with flawed but believably realistic adult characters. Girls and boys alike who appreciate issue-driven middle school stories won’t be disappointed by Claudia Mills’s latest project, and those who have grown up reading her books for slightly younger readers will be glad to have this new, more mature title on their shelves.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Book Review: Return to Gone-Away by Elizabeth Enright (1961)

Return to Gone-Away is Elizabeth Enright’s sequel to her 1958 Newbery Honor Book, Gone-Away Lake. The second book follows the adventures of Portia and her family as they work to restore an abandoned house at Gone-Away Lake so they can spend the summers there. As they uncover the treasures and skeletons hidden in the closets of their new home, Portia and Foster spend time with their cousin Julian and their elderly friends, Uncle Pindar and Aunt Minnehaha, who indulge the children’s interest in history, as well as their imaginations.

Though this sequel is nearly as well-written as the first book, I didn’t see much of anything new in this story that made me understand why a sequel was necessary. Though I could see readers being interested in the mysteries of an abandoned house, Portia and the other characters already had the experience of exploring Gone-Away in the first book, and this story just seemed like more of the same. I kept waiting for whatever the new twist was going to be, but it never quite happened.

I also had trouble buying into the idea that kids are overly interested in learning about what older people were like as children. I think readers like the kind of stories Uncle Pindar tells about his boyhood, but the structure of this book distances the readers from those adventures by telling about them in the voice of an adult. I think this would be a much better children’s book if it stuck more to the children’s point of view. It might have been interesting to either have Pin and Minnie tell their own stories in their own book where they appear as children, or to have the book alternate back and forth between the present and the past. Everything that happens in the story is interesting, but sometimes the interesting stuff is obscured by the way it is delivered. I also think Pindar and Minnehaha are kind of creepy. I think we’re supposed to see their love for the past as charming, but to me, it just looked sad. I continued to think of Miss Havisham, who is the fictional picture of emotionally instability, and certainly not someone I’d let kids hang out with unsupervised!

All in all, unless Gone-Away Lake is your favorite book of all time, there’s no real reason to also read the sequel. Nostalgic adults might find it charming, but I was pretty bored, and I think most kids I know would choose to put this book aside in favor of something with a bit more action, or at least a bit more of a kid-friendly approach to storytelling.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Book Review: Missee Lee by Arthur Ransome (1941)

Missee Lee is the tenth book in the Swallows and Amazons series, and like Peter Duck, it is a deviation from the normal progression of the series. Whereas most of the time, Ransome’s characters have real-world adventures, this story is based on their imaginings about sailing to China. In this story, Captain Flint takes Nancy, Peggy, John, Susan, Titty, and Roger with him in the Wild Cat on a voyage around the world. Gibber the monkey accidentally sets the ship on fire, and when they finally escape in Swallow and Amazon, Captain Flint and his crew mistakenly wash up on the shore among Chinese pirates who inhabit the Three Islands. Captain Flint is immediately held for ransom, and the kids are also treated as prisoners. It is only when Miss Lee, the most powerful taicoon on the Three Islands, takes them in as her students that they see any hope of ever escaping and making it home to England once more.

As I mentioned in my Peter Duck review a little over a year ago, I find it jarring to read these stories that don’t actually take place within the overall arc of the entire Swallows and Amazons series. I am not good at suspending my disbelief, and I am not fond of the adventure genre once it ventures beyond the boundaries of the characters’ own backyards. That said, though, I enjoyed Missee Lee more than Peter Duck, and I found it easier to get lost in the world of the story.

Obviously, there are some issues with outdated and offensive portrayals of Chinese culture in this book, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them. The characters in the story - and especially Miss Lee herself - speak in stereotypical broken English, where the “L” sound is substituted for every “R.” The portrayal of Chinese culture in general also demonstrates a lack of understanding of Chinese society - which is probably an accurate representation of how English children might have viewed China in the early 1940s. Despite these problems, though, I was surprised to find that the overall story is much more progressive than I’d imagined. The most powerful character in the entire book is a female pirate, and she is not only revered and feared by her people, but she is also really smart, well-read and much more sensitive to the plight of her prisoners than either of the leaders of the other two islands. I thought it was very telling that the Walkers and Blacketts, as the authors of the story, would make this sort of character the heroine, and I liked that Ransome incorporated references to school and British life that would easily have come to the minds of the characters as they were inventing the tale of Missee Lee. In Peter Duck, I felt as though I didn’t know the characters quite well enough to have fun imagining them in new and far-off places. This time, the characters felt like old friends and I got a kick out of seeing Captain Flint caged like a monkey and Roger rising to the head of the Latin class in Miss Lee’s makeshift school.

Missee Lee was an enjoyable escapist read, and I don’t recommend skipping it if you’re reading the entire series. I think it is easier to appreciate the story if you’ve read at least a few titles about these characters beforehand, but even the uninitiated will enjoy all the excitement, suspense, and action of this satisfying and fun read.