Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler

The year is 1996. Emma and Josh have been best friends and next door neighbors their whole lives, though Josh wishes they were more than that. His attempt to move their friendship to the next level failed miserably. Now things are awkward between the two of them.

One day Emma receives her very first computer along with an America Online CD-ROM. But upon first signing onto AOL, she is immediately taken to a website called Facebook where she sees her life 15 years into the future - and she doesn't like what she sees. So she takes it upon herself to try to change her future.

Told in alternating chapters between Josh and Emma's perspectives, The Future of Us is a quick, fun read and even though the story takes place only fifteen years ago, it reads like historical fiction. The reason why it feels like historical fiction is because technology has moved so quickly in the past 15 years, that what was technologically advanced back then, is like a dinosaur now. In fact, I worry that the impact of this book will be obsolete in less than a year due to how quickly even Facebook changes.

I honestly think, despite the fact that this book is categorized as YA, people in their thirties who were in high school fifteen years ago, will identify with this book more than teenagers will. I even mentioned this to Jay and Carolyn when I met them at NCTE a couple weeks ago, and Jay gave a good, authorly response, which is that he thinks the book is for everyone. But then he mentioned that depending on what age you are, you will read the story differently. As someone who was in high school in 1996, I can tell you that lots of feelings of nostalgia bubbled up as I was reading. Teenagers will not have those overwhelming feelings when they read  "Crash into Me" and "Dave Matthews Band" in the same sentence.

I was, however, hoping this book would be more profound than it was. Instead, it was more of a fluff read. Still, sometimes fluff reads are just what you need. This book came to me at a time when I was in a reading funk and got me out of it. So while the depth of the story wasn't there, the motivation to keep reading was.

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Macker
Published: November 21, 2011 by Razorbill
Pages: 356
Genre: Realistic Fiction/Magical Realism
Audience: Young Adult

Check out my giveaway here

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Recap of John Green's NCTE anti-censorship session and Giveaway: SIGNED chapter sampler of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

One of the highlights (i.e., THRILLS) of going to the NCTE conference was getting to meet John Green and hear him speak. He did a session on defending intellectual freedom and it was incredibly exciting and enlightening.

Some of the thoughts he shared from that session:
  • The work of intellectual freedom is mostly done by teachers and librarians and very little with authors.
  • When he wrote Looking for Alaska, he actually thought that critics were going to tear it apart for having too much of a naive Christian message. Which is why he was shocked when  people tried to ban it from schools, in particular because of one awkward sex scene that he wrote to juxtapose the contrast of empty physical encounters vs. emotional intimacy.
  • Public schools shouldn’t exist for parents or even students. It’s for the benefit of the social order and a more educated work force (in response to the teachers who offered another reading option when they assigned LFA)
  • When books are challenged, the easy thing for teachers and school boards to do is to just choose another book that won't cause uproar, but that is allowing ignorance to win. Teachers, librarians, and administrators need to keep fighting for intellectual freedom (which he recognizes is easier said than done).

Oh! And if you didn't already watch it, you can see me in the audience of his intellectual freedom session in one of his recent Vlogbrothers videos. I'm the one in the second row in the red sweater around the 0:11 mark.

Anyway, a little while after his session, John did a book signing at the Penguin booth and I got both of my books of his that I own signed (Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns), BUT they were also giving away chapter samplers of The Fault in Our Stars which he also signed one of those for me. 

I have read the chapter sampler and I can't even begin to describe how amazing this book is going to be. In the first two chapters, you immediately laugh, cry, and fall in love with the main character, Hazel. She is battling terminal thyroid cancer, which metastasized into her lungs, when she meets Augustus Waters at a cancer support group. What you expect to be a sad, downer of a narrative, has already managed to be hilarious and irreverent (as well as sad and tragic) in two short chapters. I already know this is going to be one of those books that makes me cry so hard I give myself a headache. I already managed to shed tears of sadness and laugh out loud in a mere two chapters.

With that, I bet you probably want to win my one and only signed copy of the chapter sampler of The Fault in Our Stars, right?

Just do the Rafflecopter thing and you are entered to win. 

In My Mailbox: NCTE Edition (54)

In My Mailbox is a weekly meme hosted by The Story Siren. The books you share do not have to be ones you actually received in the mail. They can be ones you bought at the book store, checked out at the library, or downloaded to your e-reader. The idea is just to share what's on your TBR pile for the upcoming week.

Last weekend, I attended the NCTE conference in Chicago and was inundated with a gargantuan number of books, both from author signings and from the generous publishers giving away ARCs. Thankfully we drove to Chicago because when I got home and started pulling books out of bags, I counted almost 100 books!

This is what our backseat looked like on our drive home:

These are all the books I got signed:

And these are all the free books I got:

Oh, and this one deserves its own picture:
Yes folks, that is a SIGNED, two-chapter preview of The Fault in Our Stars. I've already read it and I can't tell you how amazing this book already is just from the first two chapters. John Green is such an amazing writer. Be on the lookout... I will probably be doing a giveaway of this very soon for those of you who can't wait till January to get your John Green fix.

Bringing all these books into my classroom for my students and seeing their reaction at getting to read books that were signed by authors or before they're even published was so exciting. This was my first NCTE conference but it will definitely not be my last. I'm already hoping to go next year when it will be held in Las Vegas.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Michigan Beats Ohio State: Hail Yes!

Michigan fans have had to wait 7 long years, but the drought is finally over! The good thing about having to wait so long for a victory over our biggest rival is that being in the stadium today and witnessing the elation of the crowd was something I will remember forever. The joy was palpable, the celebration genuine.

We're celebrating in Ann Arbor!

And this victory was even sweeter considering we won despite the shady reffing that was going on during the game. It was almost like the refs were explicitly trying to get us to lose. And yet, despite those dirty shenanigans, we still won. It was good to see that heart and determination beat out over politics.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Chicago is a feast for the eyes and the stomach

Prior to my trip last week, I had never been to Chicago before. I know what you're thinking. How can someone who lives only 4 hours away and loves to travel, never visited Chicago before? The truth is, I don't have an excuse. But my attendance at the NCTE conference last week ended my lifelong Chicago drought.

Besides all of the amazing authors and teachers I met at NCTE, I also took some time to experience the beauty and culinary delights of this great American city.

Upon arrival in Chicago, my husband and I took the obligatory architecture cruise along the Chicago River. Even though we froze our butts off, it was a beautiful sunny day and we learned a lot about, not just the architectural history of the city, but the history in general. I highly recommend this be your first activity if you've never been to Chicago before. You learn a lot and you also get a general lay of the land as well.

Two of our memorable dining experiences in Chicago were lunch at Rick Bayless's casual dining restaurant, Xoco, and dinner at Sable Kitchen and Bar.

Every time I watch Rick Bayless cook or I hear his food described on TV, my mouth immediately begins watering. I knew that my first trip to Chicago had to involve eating at one of his restaurants. We decided to go with his lunch-counter/street food-style joint called Xoco and we were not disappointed. It was by far the best Mexican food I've ever had.

Rick Bayless does not serve what Americans consider typical Mexican fare. You will not find tacos, burritos, fajitas or the like anywhere on his menus. Rick has dedicated his career to introducing Americans to the variety and unique flavors of Mexican cuisine.

 The specialties of Xoco are tortas (Mexican subs), caldos, (meal-in-a-bowl soups), churros (fried dough with cinnamon and sugar) and hot chocolate.

To whet our appetites, we ordered the chips and salsa that included a bright salsa verde, and a smoky, piquant 3-chile salsa.
Even my husband, who generally does not like salsa, continuously dipped his chips in one of the two bowls before inhaling them.

My main lunch order was the torta ahogada which was topped with pork carnitas, black beans, pickled onions, and swam in a spicy tomato broth.
Mouths have memories just as much as minds do, and my mouth remembers every bite of this delicious torta. I already know that our next visit to Chicago will include a trip to Xoco just to eat this sandwich. I honestly don't even remember what my husband ordered because I was just so enamored with this dish.

Even though we were full from our satisfying tortas, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to try the churros and hot chocolate.
What is incredibly unique about the hot chocolate at Xoco is that it is literally bean-to-cup. You can watch them grinding the cocoa beans to create this thick and luscious drink. It's like drinking a slightly thinned-out, melted candy bar.
As you can see, despite our fullness, we didn't let much of this amazing dessert go to waste.

The second memorable meal in Chicago was at a restaurant that has recently been put on the map due to the fact that its executive chef, Heather Terhune, is on Top Chef this season. Sable Kitchen & Bar has forged its niche in the Chicago culinary scene with what they are dubbing New American cuisine (think comfort food with a twist).

The vibe at Sable is very hip, yet casual at the same time. Food is served as small dishes designed for sharing. They keep the menu at the table because the idea is to order as you go along.

We started with a flatbread of potatoes, mushrooms, and taleggio cheese, which was, believe it or not, a lovely light starter to some of the epic dishes to come later in our meal.

The next dish was a trio of short rib sliders with a root beer glaze and crispy onions.

While we were feasting on the sliders, we thought the perfect accompaniment would be the duck fat steak fries topped with cave-aged cheddar and fleur de sel

But the epic finale of our meal was... wait for it... BACON JAM...topped with brie and served with toasted baguette
 It has been thoroughly documented here on this blog (and on Facebook and Twitter... and in my classroom...) that I have a rather zealous obsession with bacon. I am always looking for new ways to use the meat candy in my home cooking, so I will order almost anything in a restaurant that features bacon as the star ingredient. I mean, if I'm willing to put bacon in ice cream, I think it's pretty clear that I go big or go home, and bacon jam is going big, let me tell you. From the intense smoky and sweet scent, to the rich, luscious mouth-feel, this is one of the few bacon dishes that I can truly call sensual. I think I went into a bit of ecstasy upon that first bite.

But if bacon jam was the ecstasy part, there was bound to be an agony. Unfortunately for me, that was my nonexistent night of sleep immediately following this gluttonous meal. It was my own fault. I ate too much. But the food was just so delicious, I couldn't stop. And to put in perspective how amazing this meal was, I am always one to ban any and all food that has caused me to be sick from ever entering my stomach again. Even after my sleepless night as punishment for my gluttony, I would go back to Sable and eat that bacon jam again in a heartbeat.

Has this ever happened to anyone else? You had a meal so amazing that you couldn't stop eating, and then paid for it later? Or should I just change the word "Foodie" in the title of my blog to "Glutton"?

Thankfully Reading Weekend

I reject any and all consumeristic activities on the day after Thanksgiving, and instead choose to stay home, curled up on my couch reading good books. Which is why I am happy to participate in Jenn's Bookshelves Thankfully Reading Weekend. Given the gargantuan number of books I received at the NCTE conference last week, this long weekend is a great time to spend reading.

So what's on my TBR pile this weekend?

Sisters of Glass by Stephanie Hemphill

Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver

Fever by Lauren DeStefano

Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver (audiobook)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

NCTE Recap

How do I begin to recap one of the most memorable experiences of my teaching career?

For those of you who don't know, NCTE stands for National Council of Teachers of English. I never thought to go to this conference before because it was always held in some far-off locale and it just never crossed my radar. But 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the NCTE and the convention was to be held in Chicago, a mere 4-hour drive from where I live. So upon the encouragement of my Uncle Tom, who has been going to NCTE for 25 years, I asked my principal over the summer if the school would help pay for the trip. She agreed and the rest is history.

If you are an English teacher, I highly encourage you to try to make it to NCTE sometime. It will reinvigorate your teaching. As my friend Jillian from Heise Reads and Recommends so aptly put on Twitter, in a time where teachers get kicked down and treated like they don't matter, NCTE "reminds me that what I do is invaluable & that I am supported & appreciated."

For that reason alone, the conference is worth the time and money.

So what memories do I bring back from NCTE? Too many to properly quantify, but I'll try my best.

Getting to see my teaching mentors like:
Donalyn Miller
Penny Kittle
My uncle, Tom Romano

Meeting Twitter friends like Jillian (@heisereads)

Meeting favorite authors like:
John Green
Laurie Halse Anderson
Jackson Pearce
Kenneth Oppel
Carolyn Mackler and Jay Asher

I met many other authors that I didn't get pictures of, but whom I'm equally grateful to have met, like Kate Messner, M.T. Anderson, Chris Crutcher, Linda Urban, Linda Tashjian, John Coy, Tommy Greenwald, and many others.

And let me tell you something about YA and middle grade authors. They are such wonderful people. Every single author that I met at NCTE was so amiable and if they didn't have a long line, would sit there and chat for a while. I just happened to catch Jackson Pearce and M.T. Anderson at a time when there was a lull in their line and I had such lovely conversations with both of them.

Something else I cannot speak of highly enough is the generosity of the publishers who came to NCTE. I never in a million years imagined that I would be bringing home so many books. I am not lying when I tell you that it was almost 100! My husband drove to Chicago with me so we could make it a little vacation in addition to a professional trip and thank goodness we drove instead of took a bus or a train because this what our backseat looked like when we packed the car to leave:

When we got home, I pulled all the bags of books out of the backseat and started making piles. These are all the books I got signed:
And these are all the books I got for free:
To say that my students were excited when I came back to school on Monday was an understatement.

As my NCTE weekend came to a close, I had dinner with the person who encouraged me to come in the first place: my Uncle Tom, along with my Aunt Kathy and cousin Mariana, who is also an English teacher. As the evening began to wind down, I hugged my aunt and uncle and thanked my Uncle Tom profusely for encouraging me to come to such career-affirming experience. No wonder he's been going every year for the past 25 years.

When times are darkest in my teaching career, I am lucky enough to be blessed with a principal who can talk me down off the ledge and tell me that I'm doing the right thing. I know that not everyone else is that lucky. Which is why NCTE is such an invaluable experience. For me however, it was another one of those opportunities during a rather dark time to help me see that I am, indeed, doing the right thing.

But just what is the right thing? It's really very simple: practice what you preach. Model the life of the writers and readers you want your students to become. Reject all notions that test prep and/or mindless worksheets should replace authentic learning. Reach for the hearts as well as the minds of your students. The rest will take care of itself.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Back from NCTE

Hello everyone! 'Tis been a while since I last posted, but I have a good excuse. I just got home last night from the NCTE (National Council for Teachers of English) conference in Chicago where I had the awesomest time ever!

I know what you're thinking. A conference for English teachers is fun? Heck yeah! Authors galore rock this joint!

If you don't believe me, just check out John Green's latest video. That's me in the audience, second row in the red sweater. Can you tell how excited I am that I'm about to hear John speak? And then I just about peed my pants when I saw that I was in his video, no matter how fleeting it may be.

I will write up a recap post sometime this week, but I'm sure it won't be until Wednesday or after since I'll have the long Thanksgiving weekend to contemplate the feast of awesome that was Chicago.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

In My Mailbox (53)

In My Mailbox is a weekly meme hosted by The Story Siren, inspired by Pop Culture Junkie. The books you share do not have to be ones you actually received in the mail. They can be ones you bought at the book store, checked out at the library, or downloaded to your e-reader. The idea is just to share what's on your TBR pile for the upcoming week.

This was a big picture book week for me. I'm going to have my students create their own picture books "inspired by" ones I have read to them in class so I'm getting ready for that.

One Love: Based on the Song by Bob Marley adapted by Cedella Marley, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Library Loot:

Picture Books:
Neville by Norton Juster, illustrated by G. Brian Karas
Subway Story by Julia Sarcone-Roach

This Plus That: Life's Little Equations by Amy Krouse-Rosenthal, illustrated by Jen Corace
America is Under Attack: September 11, 2001: The Day the Towers Fell by Don Brown

Every Thing on It by Shel Silverstein

Sizzling Skillets and Other One-Pot Wonders by Emeril Lagasse
Meals in Minutes: A Revolutionary Approach to Cooking Good Food Fast by Jamie Oliver

What did you get in your mailbox this week?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
When Abe Portman dies a mysterious and violent death, most people assume it was a vicious dog attack, but his grandson Jacob knows otherwise. His grandfather's final words to him were, "Go to the island, Yakob. Here it's not safe."

When Abe was a young man, his parents sent him to an island during the war to protect him from the invading Nazis. As a child Jacob always heard stories from his grandfather about the home where he stayed but always assumed they were just fantastical stories made up by a man who was trying to cope with the abandonment of his parents and the loss of his true home.

Given that he saw the terrifying creature that killed his grandfather, Jacob knows his death was no dog attack. But terrorized by nightmares and a family that thinks he's gone crazy, Jacob is sent to a psychiatrist to deal with the trauma of his grandfather's death, all the while knowing there is something much more sinister afoot.

On his birthday, Jacob's aunt gives him a book that was inscribed to him by his grandfather. Inside this book is a letter written by one Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine to Abe Portman. This letter is the impetus Jacob needed to go to the island his grandfather spoke of and find the house where he once lived with these peculiar children that Jacob always assumed were just bizarre stories he made up as a way of coping with the terror of war.

Now he knows otherwise and he somehow manages to convince his father to take him to the very island where his grandfather once lived. Will he find the answers he is looking for? Or just discover that his grandfather, and now he, are the crazy ones?

Peppered with a collection of unusual old photographs, Ransom Riggs weaves a story unlike any other I've ever read. It is the very definition of the publishing house that printed it: Quirk. It's not scary enough to be a horror story, but it's definitely frightening enough to be creepy, and will prevent you from reading it alone in bed at night if you're a chicken like me.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book up until about two-thirds of the way through when the world of the Peculiars started to reveal itself. As someone who is not normally a fan of fantasy and/or scary stories, I found it difficult to lose myself in the world that Riggs created. Still, I can see why this book is a bestseller. The draw of the strange photographs along with the mystery of what really happened to Abe Portman allows this book to appeal to many different types of readers.Whether I read the sequel remains to be seen. I want to see what it's about before I commit to adding it to my TBR pile.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Published: June 7, 2011 by Quirk Books
Pages: 352
Genre: Mystery/Fantasy
Audience: Young Adult? (Lots of people seem to be confused about the age group of this book)
Disclosure: Book received from publisher