Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Giver by Lois Lowry--Book Challenge and Censorship

I was astonished to hear it for the first time. “Flabbergasted” is an old-fashioned word my mother used to use... and I was flabbergasted. I think The Giver is such a moral book, so filled with important truths, that I couldn’t believe anyone would want to surpress it, to keep it from kids. Now, of course, I’m used to it, sadly. But I still don’t understand it, although it is clear now that those who bring objections are often reading things out of context (for example, often they say that the book recommends abortion or euthanasia, and of course neither is true). Sometimes they haven’t read the entire book and so aren’t ”getting it.” No, I don’t for one second think about the possibility of censorship when I am writing a new book. I know I am a person who cares about kids and who cares about truth and I am guided by my own instincts, and trust them. ~ Lois Lowry, interview response on censorship (Scholastic)

Parents of a middle school student in Ramona Middle School, of Bonita School District, were "appalled by the content of this Newbery Award Winning Literature." As these parents stated that they checked this book out themselves, they only read portions of it. And of course, it was the portions that they could disect and pinpoint several topics that they felt are highly controversial to be reading in school. The targeted topics suggested that children are being brainwashed by reading of murder, suicide, euthanasia, mental-telepahty, etc. And according to the American Library Association, The Giver has ranked as one of the most commonly challenged books in public and school libaries and has been challenged on similar grounds as the parents at Ramona M.S. had brought forward to their School Board.

While these parents have every right to choose what books their child reads, their opinion should not dictate what an entire class, school, or district can hold in their libraries. As stated from community member Judy Nelson, own of Mrs. Nelson's toy and Book Shop, to the Bonita School District, "parents have the absolute right, and the responsiblity, to guide their own reading. But they should not be given the right to make those decisions for everybody else's children. That takes away the rights of other, maybe less vocal, parents to make decisions with an on behalf of their kids."

Teachers carefully evaluate books to ensure that they are age-appropriate and high interest for the readers in their classrooms. In fact, inumerable hours are devoted to the book selection process in order for teachers and libarians to choose books that will encourage children to be livelong thinkers and lifelong readers. "They choose the best books available to them to help stimulate our children's minds, to show them how to seek information, analyze it, think about it critically, and compare and contrast opposing viewpoints, including controversial, challenging, or unpopular views. Outstanding literature covering a wide range of subjects helps students formulate their own thoughts and attitudes about life." These ideas are confirmed in a letter to Lois Lowry form a sixth grade teacher in using The Giver at the start of her school year. "It created a spark which teachers long for and dreamt about. A few chapters into the book and the school was gripped by "Giver" fever. Students came to class begging to read and they discussed it in hallways, at lunchtime, and one the bus ride home. Parents came to interviews asking where they could buy a copy as other families discussed it over their evening meal together."

In her acceptance speech, Lowry states, "The man that I named The Giver passed along to the boy knowledge, history, memories, color, pain, laughter, love, and truth. Every time you place a book in the hands of a child, you do the same thing. It is very risky. But each time a child opens the book he pushes open the gate that separates him from Elsewhere. It gives him choices. it gives him freedom. Those are magnificent, wonderfully unsafe things. An elementary school teacher in the Bonita School District read The Giver after fearing her teenage son's state of rebellion. "The books, the songs, the vacations, the traditions. I knew that if he remembered them, he would be ok." "When I talked to Lois Lowry last week, I told her about that, and she said she really understood how I could get that from her book - others had too - and it came from a similar experience in her life."

While the intitial letter to the school board by parents of the Ramona Middle School student are opposed to having The Giver in their libraries, there are many comments and letters of support to keep it on the bookshelves. In fact, after the complaints were filed, the books were temporarily pulled pending a review by the School Board. "The ALA holds that it is the parent and only the parent - who may restrict the children - and only his children - from access to libary materials and services." In a letter to Lois Lowry's editor form a community member, he states, "The Board and the School Superintendent and some of his staff ha d already met and decided to designate The Giver as appropriate for use as a core book in the middle school curriculum. they also left it on the shelves of all schools, inlcuding the elementary schools." The letter also stated how they will revise their current policy and how members respond to censorship issues while protecting parents, teachers, and librarians rights to choose what they see fit for their children to read.

I was absolutely relieved to find the result of the School Board's ruling. While I became a HUGE fan of The Giver after reading it, I know that there are going to be people who won't be huge fans. But at the VERY least, read the entire book first. Just don't pintpoint specific chapterss or details that could be controversial after twisting and manipulating it into something that the author wasn't even trying to express in the first place. While I know that the ruling allowed The Giver to remain in the Bonita School system, I have found that it has been removed from libraries and schools across the nation due to similar complaints about the inappropriate content of the book.

In Lois Lowry's response Trusting the Reader, she states, "It means that we writers are noticers. We are perceivers. We don't miss much. We see the details, the nuances, the flyspecks. Most easy truths have had corollaries, though. And so nothing is lost. The hard part, then face the task of sifting and selecting. What do we point out to the audience? What do we hint at? What do we lie about? what do we shout? What do we hide? In a video interview below, Lowry states that to this day that she is still not completely clear as to what people are objecting to in The Giver and why they're so frightened. In fact, she points out that Jonas, a twelve year old going on thirteen year old boy is faced with a challenge of trying to change the world around him. Isn't this the underlying message that most teachers who are HUGE fans want their children to understand and learn from? That a single boy can make his mark despite the odds against him. Most teenagers need this boost of self esteem and confirmation that they too can make a difference.

As a teacher it is confirming to know that there are those who will stick by you and fight for your rights to choose what is best for your students. Let's face it - we want our children to love reading. And if parents continue to dictate what's right and what's not right to read for an entire school or even an entire school district, what freedom of choice will we really be teaching our children? If we continue to censor, what will be left? As Judy Blume states on her thoughts about censorship, "What I worry about most is the loss to young people. If no one speaks out for them, if they don’t speak out for themselves, all they’ll get for required reading will be the most bland books available. Instead of finding the information they need at the library, instead of finding novels that illuminate life, they will find only those materials to which nobody could possibly object.

As an educator, I will continue to make choices that I feel are appropriate and stimulating to my young readers, while knowing in the back of my mind that others might not feel the same as I do. And I'm okay with that. I walk a fine line between guiding students in their book selections and what parents may feel is appropriate for their children. While being open to their suggestions and input, hopefully we can work out a compromise based on a collaborative focus on the issues at hand - after reading the book from start to finish.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman

A vacant lot filled with garbage to the waist doesn't seem like a particularly ideal spot for a garden. But Kim thought that it would be the perfect place to grow her lima beans and committed herself in making her deceased father proud of her. From this moment, the vacant lot of despair becomes soil filled with promise and hope as strangers in the apartment complex begin to plant their own gardens. Curtis believes he can win Lakeesha back by planting her tomatoes, her favorite. Virgil's dad, sees himself making a fortune from planting lettuce. And Marciela, a young sixteen year-old mother to be, finds herself captivated by the growth and change of flowers, as thoughts of wishing for her baby to die erase from her mind in that very moment.

Thirteen people altogether are impacted by the garden and each bring their diverse backgrounds, experiences, and values and demonstrate this through what they plant in their small area of soil. And while the garden is segregated into areas that depict a certain race, culture, and ethnicity, it proves to be a common ground for all members of the neighborhood and they assist one another in the growth of their plants.

Fleischman's literary technique is exemplary as he strings these thirteen stories together in a way to show how each of person's experience in the lot affects its overall success in thriving and developing into a garden. This is also depicted on the cover of the book by illustrator Judy Pederson in her images of some of the characters stories and objects tied together in a quilt-like formation, to prompt to the reader that their stories will be told within the pages of Seedfolks. Just as the plants in the garden grew, so did the hopes and dreams for each person that worked there. "We like our seeds, were now planted in the garden." (p. 50) There is also somewhat of a predictability as I continued to read, knowing that each perspective would add their own account on how the garden has changed his or her life. Similarly, Pederson's singular illustration also adds to this predictability in each chapter and how that object is associated with the text.

And as people in this small neighborhood in Cleveland became more familiar with one another, the barriers of race and culture that separated their gardens didn't seem to exist any longer. Fleischman details this in a particular scene in which an old Italian woman praises Amir for his eggplants and how she was so happy she'd met him. "But something bothered me. Then I remembered. A year before she'd claimed that she'd received wrong change in my store...She'd gotten quite angry and called me-despite her accent-a dirty foreigner. Now that we were so friendly with one another I dared to remind her of this. Her eyes became huge. She apologized to me over and over again. She kept saying, "Back then, I didn't know it was you...". I believe that this was Fleishman's way of demonstrating the power of seeing beyond physical differences in one another and to focus on finding the similarities inside, and how despite the differences that may exist, much can be learned from one another.

This is also true with Royce and how most people felt relieved when he left the garden due to him being black and homeless. "Then he began spending more time there. We found out that he had a stutter...He was trusted and liked-and famous, after his exploit with the pitchfork. He was not a black teenage boy. He was Royce. And people found out that he wanted to be helpful, and in return he wanted to feel a part of the community just as the others did.

Fleischman begins the story with Kim, a young oriental girl who plants her lima beans, and ends the story a year later with the spring season beginning, beginning the garden's renewal of hope and promise to all those watching and waiting to begin yet again. This literary technique comforts the reader in predicting that the garden will thrive again through the upcoming months and continue to be a place where all of its cultivators will return year after year. And their harvest celebration becomes much more than trading gardening tips, but celebrates the way that they have become an important part of each other's lives.

This book was a quick read for me - and during my time reading, the words have a way of placing you in that garden and being right there as a part of the neighborhood. Although the story is short, the messages that you come away learning can stay with you forever. It is true that you should never judge a book by it's cover because after you read it, you question yourself as to why you would ever think that way in the first place because of what you learned. Perhaps this was true to many of the characters in Seedfolks. A powerful, yet true message that we should all try to live by.

"Gardening...has suspense, tragedy, startling developments a soap opera growing out of the ground." Indeed it does. The vacant lot could be in any city as the message of diversity, people, and sensibility is universal, and beautifully cultivated by an author who has a green thumb with words." ~Julie Cummins, New York Public Library

After reading Missing May and now, Seedfolks, I realized something that both stories had in common. Both Rylant and Fleischman had gardens in their stories that proved to be integral in the story's plot and development of the characters. As equally interesting, and perhaps also coincidental, Fleischman also wrote a book titled Whirligigs, detailing a story about a young boy that creates whirligigs to keep the young girl's spirit and memory alive, after she tragically died in a car accident due to his drunk driving. The symbolism of the whirligigs is also present in Seedfolks as Bo lets his whirligigs free in the wind after being placed in May's garden, a place that she once loved to be.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Missing May by Cynthia Rylant

They were one big, happy family that lead simple lives in Deep Water, West Virginia. Simple lives filled with love for one another. Summer's Aunt May passes on and life gets much harder for her and Ob, May's husband. This event comes at a time when Summer finally feels secure after experiencing many years of instability in shifting from home to home. She questions whether or not Ob can regain his strength and be able to focus on the two of them as a family - as the two continually think about May and wish for her to return to them once again.

Ob shares with Summer that he has felt May's spirit. This event gives Ob hope, while it in turn reminds him of the tragic loss of his wife. Summer sees Ob lose faith, inspiration, and purpose as he fails to wake up on time one morning. But as Cletus Underwood, a boy that Summer can barely stand, manages to instill a new sense of hope to Bo and tells him he can try to communicate with May once again through a "Spiritualist." Summer does not go for this idea, and is shocked when Bo buys into taking the journey three hours to Glen Meadows. However, the three travel on while Summer feels content and safe on their way to the Church as they travel in silence.

When they arrive at the Church of Glen Meadows, they learn that the Spiritualist has passed on her nephew will not be able to assist them in connecting with May. But something changes in Bo on that ride back to Glen Meadows. He decides to turn the car around and go visit the capitol. Upon their return home, Summer sees an owl fly above her, giving her a sense of May's presence - and finally, Summer begins to let her emotions out. Bo comforts her as he did when she was a little girl. And that next morning, the three of them go out to May's garden and hang up Bo's whirligigs and the pamphlet they picked up in Glen Meadows, giving them a place to spin, live, and fly - while Cletus asks, "What is the true mission of spirit messages?" "To bring us consolation in the sorrows of life..." Then everything was set free by the wind.

While Summer is only twelve in the book, it seems as though her life experiences thus far have matured her greatly. She communicates very personal thoughts with the reader about how she misses May. However, she does not show her emotions around Bo, in order maintain strong for him in his time of need. It isn't until Summer feels May's spirit as the owl flies over her, that she finally lets go and grieves the death of May, while being comforted by Ob as she once was as a child. I believe that this was May's way of showing Summer that she is safe and that everything will be alright.

As I read Missing May, I felt drawn into the state of emotions resonating through the actions and thoughts of the characters. Rylant creates characters that are real people who experience real-life situations such as death and how people cope in different ways. She uses quite a bit of symbolism thoughout her writing. For example, when the owl passes over Summer I believed that was the moment that Summer felt May's presence of spirit and that at that moment she could surrender her true emotions and start the grieving process, and that she didn't have to be strong for Ob any longer. However, when May is expressing her thoughts about the owl she states, "I'd not ever seen an owl in all my days, and when I hadn't had you but a few weeks there that one passed through my life. I knew you'd always be doing that for me and for Ob. Bringing us good things like that." To me this represents May's wish for Summer and Ob to move on and have a new beginning in their lives together, just as Summer had created a new beginning for May and Ob when she became a part of their family. In other example of Rylan't symbolism, as the three hang up Ob's whirligigs outside at May's garden, the wind sweeps them up and carries them away as if to represent a fresh start of their lives together.

I believe that it isn't until you are faced with someone you love dying that you will not know how to cope with this life altering event. People deal with it in different ways. Some people get depressed, hope to connect with their loved one through a spiritual connection - like Bo. While others contain their emotions in order to stay strong for others - like Summer. But it isn't until someone unexpected, like Cletus, in a way fills that missing void, and brings people closer together in a time of need. And when time is given, people find their own way to say good-bye while holding onto the memories that transformed their lives.

A few of moving scenes of how Ob and Summer dealt with the loss of their beloved May...

"Right out of the blue, he wanted to live again. And I'd like to think maybe he wanted to live because of me. Because he couldn't bear the thought of saying good-bye to me."

And Ob said, "She's still here, honey. People don't ever leave us for good." (p. 84)

"I closed my eyes and thought of my poor young mama and May's poor mommy and daddy and my dear May herself. But I didn't dwell on them with pain or fear. There was a tranquility in me that felt all right, and as I remembered them all, my tears dried up and I fell asleep." (p. 84)

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver by Lois Lowry details the life of a young boy Jonas who has been raised in a world that is seemingly perfect, a somewhat "utopian society"; until, he receives his life assignment that completely changes his perspective on the "ideal" world that he had once lived. While during his training as the new Receiver, Jonas is transmitted feelings of happiness, sadness, joy, pain, grief, hope, and love. He begins to question his trainer, the Giver, as to why his community has put away these memories of generations past.

Jonas, while admirable of these memories that the Giver instills upon him, becomes frustrated with the fact that he cannot share what he has learned with others such as his family or friends, and also comes to learn about how his father participates in the Release of people, while planning to let go of Gabriel. While it is quite risky, Jonas kidnaps Gabe and journeys to the land of Elsewhere, with the intention of living within the world that was once known many years ago - before the community's robotic theme of "sameness" among all. Jonas is able to endure the pain through his recollection of memories of warmth and happiness, and is able to transfer them to Gabe.

As the story concludes, the final scene leaves Jonas with the first memory of snow and sledding down a hill, in which he and Gabe travel downhill, closer to the sound of music, closer to what he believes is people singing.

"Behind him, across vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he though he heard music too. But perhaps it was only an echo."

This left me feeling hopeful for Jonas and Gabe, yet uncertain about their fate. Did they make it to the world that once included people from past generations that Jonas had so desired? Or did they come to another utopian-like society in which humans did not experience true feelings or experiences.

What did Lowry want her readers to feel in The Giver? I felt somewhat secure, at first, in Jonas's utopian society where there was no crime, no sadness, no poverty. However, as Jonas receives memories from the Giver, he realizes that his world is somewhat corrupt and parallel to the past. My feelings changed quickly changed to frustration (as Jonas experienced while not being able to share his thoughts with others), and continually questioning as to why the future world would want to put away. Along with frustration, I experienced sadness, but still a sense of hope for Jonas and Gabe in that they would find a perfect "imperfect" world to live and feel secure in once again.

I found an interview with Lowry on ReadingRockets that was particulary interesting as Lowry wanted for readers to see Jonas to set out to change the world in which he lives in; and that is a message that is shown through Jonas's character development. However, she claims that some become frightened of the plot - I can see this as the events may be controversial.

The Van Gogh Cafe by Cynthia Rylant

Cynthia Rylant's The Van Gogh Cafe takes you on a journey out west to Flowers, Kansas - a small town that many venture, stumble upon, or have lived for much of their lives. Each chapter leads into one another leaving the reader wondering how each of the elements have been affected by the Cafe's "magical" ways. As the story continued, the names of the titles encouraged me to predict what would happen next in each transition in the story.

"They notice it and are affected by it and pretty soon word spreads that there is a cafe-the Van Gogh Cafe, that is wonderful, like a dream, like a mystery, like a painting, and you ought to go there, they will say, for you will never forget it. You will want to stay if you can."

While most of the events can be described as "whimsical," there were serious tones and emotions included within each event as it is known as the place where anything is possible.

It is as though the residents of Flowers, as well as passer-by'ers, were drawn to the Cafe because of the notion of such hopeful incidences and spontaneous occurrences that happened there; almost encouraging the sentiments of security, hope, and adventure for all who become drawn to the Van Gogh Cafe.

Based on what I've read by Rylant, I continue to understand repetitive elements that she incorporates within her stories; she leaves readers thinking and contemplating within the text, but other stories provide a more simple yet adventurous plot - yet both styles are highly entertaining and engaging. I do believe that The Van Gogh Cafe is a little bit of both of these.

When examining the cover, both the title and the illustration were puzzling at first; however, I interpreted the following from it:

  • The butterflies at the corner of the cover represent the journey west into Kansas, as providing an opportunity for hope and adventure to those who explore and wish for a change in their lives.

  • The stars and illuminated cafe portray the feelings of welcoming, comfort, and inspiration to those inside and outside, as reflected onto the sidewalk.

  • The title, The Van Gogh Cafe, (to me), reminds me of Van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night, and how the bright yellow wall of the building draws your attention to the cafe, and the contrasting dark cityscape on the opposite of the wall - similarly, to The Van Gogh Cafe and its illuminated building, contrasting to the dark, night sky above. Both create a sense of balance between bright yellow and dark - creating a feeling of warmth within the surrounding world.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Walt Disney's Cinderella by Cynthia Rylant

Cynthia Rylant's Cinderella is the version of the popular tale that I became familiar with as a child, and still am fond of as an adult reader and educator. Although the predictability and storyline is already known, Rylant's language captivates the reader as we feel truly sorry for how she is treated by the evil in her life. Rylant expresses the differentiaton between "light" and "dark," similarly as Kate DeCamilo expresses in The Tale of Despereaux.

Dark (Evil): Wicked Stepmother and Stepsisters ~ "Like roses, which do not bloom across doorways, Love itself did not ever linger."

Light (Good): Who can say by what mystery two people find each other in this great wide world?"

Rylant also capitalizes the word "Love" as if giving it human characteristics, and comparing it to a force that brings Cinderella and the Prince together. ~ "In silence, Love found them."

Mary Blair's illustrations are images full of color that also depict the mood and tone of the story. The simplicity of the images coupled with use of earthtones and subtle color combinations add to the wonder and excitement of this worldly-known tale.