Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes

Billy Miller is nervous about going back to school.  After suffering a concussion over summer vacation, he’s worried that he may not be smart enough for the second grade!  On top of the stress that comes from meeting a new teacher, Billy’s struggling to get along with his little sister, his parents, and his friends.  It seems like there’s always something going on at the Miller household, and Billy’s usually right in the middle of the action!

One thing I liked about this chapter book was how the reader gets the chance to follow Billy through the entire school year.  It’s not a minute-by-minute, day-by-day account, but rather an in-depth look at some of the more memorable events as Billy sees them.  Mr. Henkes gives a lot of attention to the simple things, like Billy’s diorama project and his class’ poetry recital.  These might not be major societal issues that we’re talking about, but they’re certainly huge milestones for a second grade student!

This one is a little bit longer than the traditional chapter book, but it’s nicely broken down into shorter sections so that even the most methodical reader will be able to make steady progress.  Not only is this book a great story about a very cool kid, but it’s a strong choice to prepare young men for the longer novels that they’ll see in upper grades.  Keep a copy of this book on hand and I guarantee, it won’t be long until all the pages start looking dog-eared and worn!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Even though he’s a goofy-looking kid with a history of medical issues, socially awkward Arnold “Junior” Spirit still shows a lot of promise.  He’s one of the best students at his school on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and he’s also a talented cartoonist and basketball player.  As Junior starts to become aware of the dead-end lives that his fellow Indians are living “on the rez”, he comes to realize that in order to have a future he’s going to have to get out.  Enrolling in the “white school” across town is an extremely unpopular decision with his friends and neighbors, but it’s a choice he has to make.  It’s tough to imagine how Junior’s life could get any harder…until, of course, it does.

This is a raw, honest book that doesn’t pull any punches.  I appreciated the way that Mr. Alexie was very blunt in discussing Junior’s struggles, both as an adolescent and as a Native American growing up in poverty.  I don’t know very much about the culture of American Indians, so it was awesome to get a sneak peek inside a modern-day reservation.  Mr. Alexie was brutally honest in his portrayal of the Spokane Indian Reservation, including descriptions of alcoholism and domestic violence.  “The Rez” came across as a sad, desperate kind of place, and it’s easy to see why Junior would work so hard to get out.

This novel seemed like a short read, but that might just be because it’s such a page-turner.  The outstanding illustrations by Ellen Fortney were both hilarious and heartfelt as well.  It’s important to note that several school districts have banned this book because of some graphic content, but I didn’t feel like it was anything that would be unfamiliar to today’s teenagers.  What really bothered me was that the supposed “objectionable content” involved normal issues from Junior’s adolescence, and hardly anyone seemed to be bothered by the tragic circumstances of everyday life on the reservation!  This is just my personal opinion here, but maybe people who haven’t actually read this book are getting upset about the wrong things!  In any case, this was one of the best modern young adult novels that I’ve read since starting this project, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to any (older) boys!