Sunday, September 30, 2012

Celebrate Banned Books Week 2012

Instead of writing a whole new post for Banned Books Week, I'm just going to reprise my post from last year. This is an issue that, as an English and literature teacher, hits very close to home for me. If you're an English teacher like me, just remember: fighting the good fight can be exhausting. Giving up and giving in is often easy because we can sometimes feel it's just not worth the effort anymore. Know that you have a community of teachers and authors who stand behind you, so keep fighting. The National Council of Teachers of English has an entire center dedicated to anti-censorship so use it to educate yourself and your community.


Celebrate your right to intellectual freedom this week by reading a banned book. Prove to book banners around the country that the only thing they do by challenging books is generate more revenue and publicity for the authors. Because, really, the only thing you do when you ban a book is incite curiosity and cause more people to read it than would have if you had just kept your mouth shut.

For parents out there, the temptation is very strong to challenge books that are against your morals and beliefs, but rather than inciting outrage and uproar, use the book as a teachable moment to talk to your children about right and wrong. Just because authors write books and teachers use them in their classrooms does not mean that we are condoning the sex, alcohol, drugs, and violence that appear in these books. Just because book characters behave in certain ways does not mean that we're asking you to see them as role models. I don't think there's a person out there who reads The Catcher in the Rye and thinks, "Wow! Holden is so cool! I want to be just like him." Ummm... no. Even my lack of sophistication at critical thinking when I was a sophomore in high school saw what a pathetic mess Holden was. So book banners, the fact that you're worried that kids will see these characters as role models regardless of what is taught to them in the classroom shows what little faith you have in teens to think critically. And the only thing you're going to do by attempting your sanctimonious disregard for the first amendment is make kids and adults alike want to read the book all the more.

Another thing that irks me about book banning, well besides the whole going against the first amendment thing, is that people who challenge books are putting pressure on schools to teach books that are clean and about benign topics. Obviously these people are asking literature teachers to teach something other than literature then because the very nature of literature is conflict. And the older students get, the more complicated conflicts become. That's just life. And it's precisely the reason why you saw Harry Potter get darker and darker as the series progressed. He was no longer a little kid at the end. The older Harry got, the darker and more complex the conflicts in those stories became because adult problems are more complicated than kid problems. When choosing books for teens, it is very difficult to find literature that isn't controversial because if you don't have conflict in a book, then, well, you don't have literature! So if that's the case dear book banners, what then do you suggest literature teachers teach in place of, well, literature?

I'm going to leave you with John Green's video from a few years ago where he discusses his frustration over people trying to ban his book, Looking for Alaska, in schools. He makes the point so much better than I do about authors having characters behave in morally reprehensible ways, not to say that it's OK, but just the opposite. Again, as I said before, just because authors are writing about it, doesn't mean they're saying to go out and do it! Have faith in your kids to be able to discern that.

Enter my Banned Books Week giveaway hop: 
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Other posts related to Banned Books Week: 
Stand up and SPEAK out against censorship
The Dirty Cowboy: a book review turned diatribe about book banning
My take on the Huck Finn controversy
Recap of John Green's NCTE anti-censorship session, 2011

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Thoughts on Bright Young Things and Beautiful Days by Anna Godbersen

It's the roaring twenties and best friends Letty Larkspur and Cordelia Grey decide to leave their small town of Defiance, Ohio for the bright lights and bigger opportunities of New York City. While Letty longs to be a star, Cordelia secretly plots to find her long-lost father, bootlegger Darius Grey. Seemingly overnight, Cordelia is swept into a new world of money, influence, and danger.

After a falling out with Cordelia, Letty soon finds herself on her own in a city that will eat her alive if she's not careful. Will Letty's quest for stardom result in a one-way ticket back to Ohio? Will Cordelia's dream of finding her influential long-lost family turn out to be a nightmare?

Author of the guilty-pleasure series, The Luxe, Anna Godbersen chooses a new historical era to focus on in her Bright Young Things series, but no less indulgent. Taking place in the Prohibition era, the glitz, the glamor, and the lawlessness keep readers turning the page and clamoring for more.

Anna Godbersen writes descriptive, lush prose and I enjoy reading and listening to her beautiful, fluid sentences. However, my problem with so much description is that sometimes the plot feels like it's not moving forward. A lot happens in the first two books, but with so much description, the stories tend to feel like everything is standing still. This is not always a bad thing. The writing is beautiful after all, but it could be an issue for people who need action-packed plots to keep turning the page.

Two examples of my favorite descriptive passages from Bright Young Things:

We did whatever we liked and dressed in whatever we thought smart and broke rules for the sport of it -- diving into public fountains, mixing social classes as casually as we mixed cocktails.

The fading day had cast the grass the color of straw, and the guests were trailed by their own long shadows as they ascended toward the vast white tent.

I'm definitely looking forward to the third book, The Lucky Ones, which comes out on November 27th.

Bright Young Things and Beautiful Days by Anna Godbersen
Published: October 12, 2010 and September 20, 2011
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 389 and 368
Genre: Historical Fiction
Audience: Young Adult
Disclosure: First book purchased, second book received for review (in audiobook form)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Picture book review: Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue by Anna Barwelll Celenza, illustrated by JoAnn E. Kitchel

One day in early 1924 George Gershwin's brother Ira was reading the New York Daily when he brought to George's attention that the newspaper said he would be performing a new concerto in a few weeks. The problem was, this was news to George! He had no idea that the public expected him to perform a brand new piano concerto, especially considering he hadn't even started writing one, let alone one ready to perform in a few weeks. But thanks to the encouragement of his brother and friends, he took on the challenge of creating a piece that would soon become the epitome of American music and also a love song to New York. And  let's not forget he finished the task in only a few weeks.

I am somewhat of a classical music snob. I played classical piano for 13 years and have always adored composers like Chopin (my favorite), Beethoven, Rachmainoff, Brahms, etc. But when I was a pre-teen and adolescent, my musical sophistication just wasn't developed enough to truly appreciate the genius of George Gershwin: the constant dissonance, the difficulty in picking out a lilting melody, the jazzy, syncopated notes. I just didn't get it. It wasn't until I was in my late twenties and I had heard this piece countless times that I finally began to appreciate its genius, and then started to consider it all-out brilliant. It really is the epitome of what America is all about: a melting pot of many different styles of music: jazz, classical, ragtime, blues...

Because I grew up loving classical music, that is definitely what drew me to this book. I LOVED learning how George Gershwin gave birth to this iconic piece of music. I think what is most evocative about this book is just knowing that had it not been for a presumptuous orchestra leader, Paul Whiteman, who made the announcement to the New York Daily of Gershwin's imminent performance, this piece may never have come to fruition, and how sad that would have been for American music.

This book comes with an accompanying CD that includes one track. I'll let you make an educated guess as to what track that is. 

Gerhwin's Rhapsody in Blue by Anna Barwelll Celenza, illustrated by JoAnn E. Kitchel
Published: July 1, 2006
Publisher: Charlesbridge
Pages: 32
Genre: Nonfiction picture book
Audience: Middle Grade
Disclosure: Checked out from library

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Banned Books Week Giveaway Hop

Thank you so much to the blogs I Am a Reader, Not a Writer and I Read Banned Books for hosting this giveaway hop. As a teacher, the issue of banning books is a huge one for me and something that gets me so worked up it affects my digestion and gives me chest pains. No lie. Check out my post last year during Banned Books Week. It's a post I will continue to stand behind and refer to any time this issue comes up.

For my portion of the blog hop, I am giving away a copy of:

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Published: February 1999
Publisher: MTV Books and Pocket Books
Format: Paperback
Pages: 209
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Audience: Young Adult
Disclosure: Copy purchased at the used bookstore which means it's a tad beat up, but I like the symbolism of giving away a slightly beat-up book for Banned Books Week: it means someone READ it!

The Perks of Being a Wallflower was the 10th book on ALA's list of 100 Most Frequently Banned/Challenged Books between 2000-2009.

Terms and conditions:
You must be 13 or older to enter
US mailing addresses only please!
Use the Rafflecopter widget to enter

Monday, September 24, 2012

It's Monday! What are You Reading? 9-24-12

Originally hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, Jen and Kellee  over at Teach Mentor Texts also host a kidlit version of It's Monday! What are You Reading?

Still behind on my reading, still reading these books:

Ten Things Every Writer Needs to Know by Jeff Anderson
Until I Die by Amy Plum

I did, however, finish this audiobook last week:
Beautiful Days by Anna Godbersen

I'm currently listening to the following audiobooks:

Because It Is My Blood by Gabrielle Zevin
Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

On the blog last week:

I reviewed American Grown by Michelle Obama

I wrote part 2 of my trip to Key West

Sunday, September 23, 2012

I left my heart in Key West part 2

I recently wrote a post about the food and lodging experiences I had in Key West this summer and this post is an extension of that one, in that I wanted to talk about all the cool things we did while in Key West.

First of all, I know it's toursity and cliche, but on our first night I shamefully admit we had dinner at Sloppy Joe's Bar. The food and drinks were underwhelming and I found it incredibly irksome that they served their drinks out of disposable plastic cups, but it's one of those places you have to go just to say you've been there. Truth be told, I don't know what the fuss was about other than I guess it's just that Hemingway used to hang there.

After Sloppy Joe's, we participated in another tourist tradition, the Mallory Square sunset celebration where the crazy street performers come out and compete for your attention, and your money.

What I found more entertaining than the street performers, however, were the roosters that just run wild all through the island. It's hilarious to see one just walking down the street like they own the place.

One of my favorite things we did while in Key West was take an all-day catamaran trip called the Power Adventure through Sebago water sports. This catamaran trip included snorkeling, kayaking, jet-skiing, banana boat rides, and parasailing. My husband really wanted to go snorkeling while we were in the keys, and I really wanted to go parasailing, so it was perfect that we were able to combine the two (and then some) in one adventure.
This was my first time parasailing and I definitely want to do it again some day!
 I highly recommend Sebago for any sort of water sport or catamaran trip while you're in Key West. They're a well-established company and very professional.

Our last full day in Key West involved riding our rented bikes around the island, with stops at Southermost Point and the Hemingway House. We had to stop off at the Southernmost Point just for the photo op because, really, there's nothing worth doing here but posing for a picture.

But I felt obligated to visit Hemingway House because, well, I'm a bibliophile and a writer so I guess I was supposed to feel some sort of kinship with Heminway, but in reality, I've never really connected with any of his books.

Still, I found the tour of his house extremely worthwhile as he was quite the fascinating figure. The house and grounds were beautiful and the tour was extremely entertaining. If you're ever in Key West, a visit to the Hemingway House is a must-do for the stories alone. So even if you're not a fan of his work, go anyway.


Speaking of writers, my favorite story that takes place in Key West is Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm. I listened to the audiobook earlier in the summer and immediately fell in love with the characters. I decided that I needed to find a copy of the book and re-read it while I was in Key West, which I'm glad I did because on our last night there, I realized that we were only a few streets away from where the family in the story lived: Curry Lane. So I had to get my picture taken reading the book in front of the Curry Lane sign. Too bad I couldn't find the Curry family anywhere.

But I think the thing I loved the most about Key West was the beautiful, distinct architecture and laid-back atmosphere. 

I adore the white houses with pastel-painted porch roofs

As a first time visitor, it's definitely a place I could see visiting more than once, and for a traveler like me who desires to see the whole world, visiting a place for a second time feels like an opportunity wasted to travel somewhere new. You won't see my husband and I ever buying a vacation home because we feel like there's too much of the world to see to vacation in one place all the time. Still, Key West is a place I could visit multiple times and not feel cheated out of a new travel experience.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America by Michelle Obama

For me, planting a garden was a way to help start a national conversation about the health of our children, an issue I care deeply about, not just as First Lady but as a mother.  - p. 213 of American Grown

This is not a book about politics. I just want to clear that up off the bat. Just because I'm reviewing and praising a book written by Michelle Obama does not mean I'm using my blog to endorse any sort of political platform.

Then again, in a way, maybe I am. I think Michelle Obama's message and mission for making healthy food more accessible to all Americans is a necessary one. Obesity and the afflictions that accompany it like type 2 diabetes and heart disease are running rampant through our nation. So much of that has to do with the food we are putting in our bodies. In many underprivileged communities throughout the country, residents don't have access to fresh produce and even if they do, many assume they can't afford it. So they rely on the convenience foods and fast food restaurants that seem to permeate underprivileged neighborhoods to sustain their diets. 

So Michelle Obama began her mission to make a healthier nation very simply: by planting a garden on the White House's South Lawn. You might wonder how a simple garden can change a nation's eating habits, but with some seeds and some dirt, she was able to start a conversation. Students and organizations came to volunteer in the garden and kids started to show curiosity about the food coming out of the ground that they were helping to plant and harvest. My biggest takeaway from this book was the need for a sense of ownership in knowing where your food comes from. Kids are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they are helping to see them grow and flourish.

This book is organized by seasons and shows the plans for what was planted in the garden each season, along with accompanying stories about the positive change the garden has made in the surrounding communities along with around the country. There are vibrant, colorful pictures all throughout the book of garden harvests and faces of excited kids pitching in with garden maintenance. Mrs. Obama also shares the learning curve that came with planting the garden. Even though the White House has a team of landscapers, the plantings were not all successes and she shares with her readers what worked and what didn't.

The last section of the book gives a few recipes inspired by the bounty of the White House garden. The recipes section is very small, so if you buy this book or check it out from the library expecting it to be a cookbook, you will be sadly disappointed. American Grown is what it says it is in the subtitle: the story of the White House kitchen garden and gardens across America. After reading this book, you will be hard pressed not to feel inspired to plant your own garden or help out at a local community garden.

American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America by Michelle Obama
Published: May 27, 2012
Publisher: Crown
Pages: 272
Genre: Nonfiction
Audience: Adults
Disclosure: Book checked out from the library

Sunday, September 16, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? 9-17-12

Originally hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, Jen and Kellee  over at Teach Mentor Texts also host a kidlit version of It's Monday! What are You Reading?

I am so behind on my reading it's not even funny. I'm still reading:
Ten Things Every Writer Needs to Know by Jeff Anderson
Until I Die by Amy Plum

I'm still listening to:
Beautiful Days by Anna Godbersen

I just finished listening to:
Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson

On the blog last week:

I wrote a review of Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. This is bar far one of the best historical fictions I have ever read. Such an important story that needed to be told.

I interviewed the brilliant Lenore Appelhans, author of the debut novel Level 2

I wrote about my trip to Key West

Saturday, September 15, 2012

I left my heart in Key West part 1: Food and Lodging

As many of you know, my husband and I road-tripped from Michigan to Key West this summer. As someone who normally prefers to travel out of the country, I at first wasn't the most excited for this trip as I have been for past trips we've taken.

That lack of excitement didn't last long. I fell in love with Key West as soon as we pulled into Old Town and checked into our hotel, Island City House.

When I saw that this was the porch reserved especially for our room, I was in heaven.

The hotel also rents bikes right on site so we never had to use our car the entire three days in Key West.

What I was most surprised about, however, was the amazing culinary experiences we had during our trip. I shamefully admit I had low expectations for the food in Key West. I'm happy to report that my expectations were surpassed.

We had three very memorable meals in those three days. The first one was at a Cuban place off of Mallory Square called El Meson de Pepe. I am very glad I disregarded many of the reviews on Yelp that declared the food overpriced, the waitstaff rude gringos, and the restaurant a tourist trap. I found it nothing of the sort.

Our waiter, Augosto, was an enthusiastic Cuban who explained everything that came to the table and what made it traditional Cuban food. My favorite was the mojo, which is similar to a chimichurri but with less herbs and more citrus. I could've eaten just the bread and mojo for my meal and been happy.

But my dinner was also delicious, consisting of black beans, braised pork, plantains, yellow rice, and yuca.

Needless to say, I was elated that I didn't listen to the negative reviews on Yelp, which is strange because I'm usually quite vigilant about taking reviews into account before dining at a restaurant. For some reason, I just had a feeling that it was going to be a great meal despite what others were saying.

The other great meal we had was lunch at La Creperie that was in a beautiful building full of soothing pastel colors that just make you want to sit there all day and people watch.

... but the food wasn't bad either. I ordered this beautiful croque madame and gobbled it all up

But our most memorable meal in Key West had more to do with the ambiance than the food. There's this restaurant, right across the street from La Creperie coincidentally enough, called Blue Heaven. The food was good, albeit overpriced, but it was so worth it for the experience. 


Blue Heaven has a very shabby chic outdoor patio that is already full of character on its own

but they have something to make it even more unique... chickens running free throughout the entire patio.

I think that rooster is stalking my husband

The dinner itself wasn't anything to write home about but they have THE MOST AMAZING key lime pie I have ever eaten in my life. Instead of whipped cream, they top it with a giant meringue (which I am surprised to admit is way better than whipped cream on a key lime pie). One piece was just about the size of my head:

I have to say that I was extremely pleased with both the food and lodging experiences we had in Key West. I really loved the character of the island and I was worried that it was all just going to be one big tourist trap. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that while full of tourists, it's still a place where people live and work and has a wonderfully relaxed vibe to it.

Coming soon I'll do another Key West post about all of the things we saw and did.