Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Animal I Have Become: A Memoir

People are suckers for great animal stories. Let's face it, when it comes to movies, there are millions-- Old Yeller, Free Willy, Homeward Bound, and the list goes on endlessly. But what about books? There are a lot of them that go unnoticed, and maybe some that you've heard of.  For example, Marley & Me by John Grogan, has gained a lot of popularity for its portrayal of a neurotic trouble-maker lab who, despite his bad behavior finds his niche in a family.  The nice thing about stories like this is the way the story of the animal entwine with the story of the person writing the memoir. Animals have an extraordinary way of making people rethink their own lives, and many of these memoirs reflect that. But the greatest thing about animals and their stories, is that besides being insightful to our own human nature, they are hilarious. Absolutely hilarious. Now if only the zookeeper that had raised Knut the baby polar bear was still alive to write one today...
Marley & Me by John Grogan (2005)
As described above, the story of a family with an awesomely destructive dog. Funny at times, sad at times, winds the story of Marley in with the obstacles that the family must overcome.
The Dogs Who Found Me: What I've Learned From Pets Who Were Left Behind
  by Ken Foster (2006)
The author finds and adopts dogs who have been discarded by society. He writes, "I adopted Brando not because I was worried he might be put to sleep, but because after several days of visiting him I couldn't stand the idea of him living with someone other than me...Within a few days I had developed a feverish dog-crush." Funny.
Wally's World: Life with Wally the Wonder Dog by Marsha Boulton (2006)
A great story about a woman, her husband, and their bull terrier who share a wonderful zest for life.  Her writing is superb and funny, and just the first page will draw you in.
The Horse Boy: A Father's Quest to Heal His Son by Rupert Isaacson (2009)
The memoir of a father who discovers that his autistic son Rowan's condition improves after an interaction with the neighbor's horse, and from there, the family embarks on an adventure to the steppe of Mongolia to cure his son through shamanic healing and horses.

Homer's Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat by Gwen Cooper (2009)
A memoir about a woman who takes the blind kitten home from the shelter, and aptly names him Homer (the title sparked my interest in this book, naturally). Although blind, Homer's very adept and courageous, with a very lovable personality. 

Dewey: the Small-town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron 
Dewey was discovered by a librarian (the author) half-frozen in the library drop-box. After he was rescued, he was adopted as the resident mascot of the library, and makes dozens of friends in his hometown in Iowa.  Again, with the clever naming!

Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and his Girl  by Stacey O'Brien (2008)
When, Stacey O'Brien first takes in the four-day-old barn owlet, she couldn't know that it would be his love and fierce loyalty that would help her overcome her own illness.  Now only if it also delivered mail to the magical world...

The Good, Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood
  by Sy Montgomery (2007)
The autobiography of a woman, who as a naturalist, has always been comfortable around animals and being on-the-go. But after taking in a small, sick piglet, who grows to be the 750-lb Christopher Hogwood, she is forcibly grounded. Mr. Hogwood, however, becomes a neighborhood favorite, and teaches the author about the community all around her.

Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess (2008)
Raising Nim Chimpsky, and teaching the chimp American Sign Language, was an experiment that meant to refute Noam Chomsky's theory that language is an exclusively human trait. What starts as an experiment turns into an introspective and funny look at what makes us human.  Plus, with a take off of Noam Chomsky's name like this, you know it's gotta be good.

The Daily Coyote: A Story of Love, Survival, and Trust in the Wilds of Wyoming
by Shreve Stockton (2008)
 The story of a photographer who moves to a small town in Wyoming from New York, and winds up taking in an orphaned coyote pup. She learns to adapt to her new lifestyle and new pet, whom she names Charlie. It explores the differences between nature and nurture, and domestication and wildness.

Rascal  by Sterling North(1663)
Somewhat older than the others, Rascal is a story about a boy's adventures with his pet raccoon in a small town in Wisconsin at the end of World War I. I've always wondered what it would be like to keep a wild thing for a pet. It's too bad Dad always told me no...


Monday, June 14, 2010

Let the Empire Strike Back Already

Shelving books in the library, I overheard the following conversation in the children's section between a mother and her two sons:

Son 1: (to Son 2, as they both fumble excitedly through the various Star Wars series collection) Number 4 is called The Empire Strikes Back! (to Mom) Mom! Mom! Can we get these? 
Mother: (looks disapprovingly at the Star Wars books, then looks animatedly down at a volume from another series-- The Boxcar Children) Umm... wow! Look at these books, I remember these... What were these series called? Oh yeah! The Boxcar Children! Have you heard of these... ooooh, The Mystery at the Fair! This looks like a good one! 
Son 1: (Blatantly ignoring mom's comments) We could get Number 3 and Number 4! 
Son 2 reaches excitedly for the book Son 1 is holding...they are almost wrestling to see what's in the book.
Mother: You can't get any of those books. That is sooo not quality literature. How about those Boxcar Children?! 
Son 1 and 2 exchange exasperated glances at one another. Son 2 tries one more attempt at showing his interest in Star Wars, again ignoring his mom's suggestion.
 Son 2: Ugh, Number 4 isn't The Empire Strikes Back, it's Return of the Jedi! Mom, please can we get this? 
Mother: No! Definitely not. Alright, look, pick either The Mystery at the Fair or The Summer Camp Mystery. You aren't getting any of those Star Wars books. (She's getting huffy now)
Son 1: When we get home can we watch The Empire Strikes Back! 
Mother: (Definitely annoyed) You have better things to do than to watch Star Wars all summer long!!! 
Son 2: (under his breath, sarcastically) Yeah... like reading the Boxcar Children...
Son 1 and 2 snicker as Mom stalks off.

I'm taken by surprise. First off, the Star Wars movies are great. Second off, the fact that these two boys around the age of 10 are wanting to read about Star Wars, not just watch the movies, is even greater.  And the last and most stressing fact from this conversation is that Mom, by denying her kids' subject of interest in reading, fails to realize that she is probably smothering any idea that reading could be fun, and sending the signal that reading is supposed to be about "good literature" (although where she gets the idea that the Boxcar Children is defined as high-quality literature is one mystery that still hasn't been solved by those ruddy little orphans).

Sorry, Gertrude Chandler Warner. Don't get me wrong about the Boxcar Children. I loved the first book when I was little, and I think it's incredible that children still check them out to this day since the first one was published in 1924.  But even if they are considered a "classic" in the world of children's literature, does that mean they are right for everyone? No. For 10 year old boys drooling over Star Wars chapter books? Definitely not.

There are plenty of books for kids that I think are garbage. [Take the Rainbow Magic series, all about fairies, with awesome names like Sky, the Blue Fairy; Sunny, the Yellow Fairy; Storm, the Lightning Fairy; and yes, even Hayley, the Rain Fairy (thanks, a lot Daisy Meadows, if that's even your real name).]     BUT, the bottom line is: if they are reading, then LET THEM READ.  Star Wars books aren't racy or crude. They aren't the greatest example of children's lit, but it's what they are interested in, so roll with it! 

Boys especially are susceptible to being turned off of books at a young age. After hearing the aforementioned conversation, I decided to do some research to find out what types of books boys at that age might enjoy. I also did a little research on boys and reading. 

Statistics (from Connecting Boys with Books: What Libraries Can Do by Michael Sullivan): 
  • Boys are on average one and a half grades behind girls in reading
  • 70% of students in remedial classes are boys 
  • Boys aren't the majority in library programs
  • Boys are the majority saying they spend zero time reading for fun
 Although I can't promise to fix these things, here are some things to help the lost boys out: 

  1. Boys need male role models showing them that reading is fun. Have their fathers or other male role models take them to the library, the bookstore, or read them their bedtime story. Let the library feel accessible to them. 
  2. Take them to library programs when they are younger (and if possible, try to encourage some of his male friends to enroll too so he has other male peers to share the reading experience with). Library programs run by male librarians are rare, but if you see one on the schedule, make it a point to have him attend that one!
  3. Encourage him to read what interests him!!! I can't stress this enough!  If you squash his interests in reading when he's little, his reading material when he gets older will consist mainly of Playboy magazines that probably won't read "just for the articles."
  I'll end this blog with a list of books that I've gathered on boys and their reading lists, and on what I've seen boys eager to check out at the library. This isn't a fool-proof list, and it's not in any particular order-- I'm just offering another option that might suit them better than, say, the Boxcar Children. 
  • Non-fiction! Okay, I know that this is incredibly vague, but boys seem to take to non-fiction pretty well. See what their interests are, and promote them: let them learn about Egyptian mummies, Roman soldiers, how cars run, the most poisonous animals in the world, how to build things, the solar system, or any other number of things boys find intriguing. 
  • Books by Matt Christopher. This guy writes fiction about almost every type of sport, and boys seems to love it. 
  • The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osbourne. This woman is a genius! She writes fiction stories about two children who travel in time and space to go on tons of adventures. She's got lots of different stories, and many of them come with non-fiction research companion guides to accompany them. For example, the first in the series, Dinosaurs Before Dark, comes with a research guide all about dinosaurs of the prehistoric world! Boys and girls alike love this series.
  • The Time Warp Trio series by Jon Scieszka. Another time travel novel about boys who travel having kooky adventures, with fun titles such as See You Later, Gladiator; Viking It and Liking It; The Not-So-Jolly Roger; The Knights of the Kitchen Table, and Your Mother Was a Neanderthal. :)
  • R.L. Stine's Goosebump series-- Boys like scaring themselves and seeing how much they can handle. Once I had a boy come up to me, and with a devilish gleam in his eye, challenged me to find him the scariest book we had. Although I can't promise these are the scariest, they do fulfill that need for a little horror.
  • The Animorphs series by K.A. Applegate also still does pretty well, even though that was much more popular when I was younger. What boy doesn't love humans turning into animals? 
  • The Hardy Boys series, by Franklin W. Dixon. This is old, I know, but I still get boys running up to me asking where the Hardy Boys are. They also make this in a comic book form now.
  • The Harry Potter series. Enough said! 
  • Eoin Colfer's The Artemis Fowl series. A fantasy series about a ruthless teenage criminal mastermind who tries to obtain money by stealing it from fairies and the like.
  • The Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. A story about a boy who has to survive on his own after his plane crashes in the woods. 
  • As far as picture books go, reading books to a boy about boys or animals (curious monkeys for example) who get into trouble, any form of transportation, pirates, dinosaurs, and pirate-dinosaur combinations will get you far! 
 Sheesh, I've given you enough books, now get to work! I'll do more digging to have more titles available at a later date.