Friday, April 29, 2011

Patrick Jennings Visit

With the release of his newest novel LUCKY CAP this past Tuesday, Patrick Jennings has now authored 16 books. 16 books! And how is it that I am just discovering this man?

On Monday morning our fifth graders had the opportunity to sit down with Patrick (Or Pato as we are now allowed to call him because we are friends) and listen to him speak about writing books, wanting a dog, and the deaths of many pets. He was wildly engaging and the students loved him!

While reading GUINEA DOG, I was marveled at Jennings' dialogue and the way he was able to create such an authentic, realistic first person narrative. As someone who aspires to write their own novel(s) for children someday, this was my burning question I wanted answered. Give me tips! How do you get inside the mind of a pubescent boy? I didn't take advantage of the opportunity to ask him because I didn't need to. Within minutes of meeting the man the answer was obvious. He's a big kid himself!

A former preschool teacher, Jennings loves children. He hosts writing groups of children in his own home (Pato's Cave) and he admitted to learning more from them than they probably learn from him. The presentation he gave us was totally centered around the kids. No PowerPoint presentation. No bulleted outline to follow. Just Patrick Jennings and an easel. We arrived at 9 o'clock for an hour long experience (his first of many throughout the week) and at 9:45 he glanced at his watch and asked "How long do I have you for?" It felt like we had only been listening to him for 15 minutes! (We didn't leave until 10:20, stretching out 20 more minutes than we should have). He was so personable and so engaging. He really made the kids feel like he was there for them. He even jotted down some of their names to possibly use in future books! We were the first group ever, to hear him read from his novel LUCKY CAP, as it was only a day away from being released. He even shared some information on an upcoming novel of his (which he finished writing in our local coffee shop Cup of Joe!) about a group of kids investigating the mysterious (and somewhat out-of-this-world) disappearance of dogs around their community. I will be pre-ordering from Amazon as soon as publication is announced!

The following day, Tuesday, I ran into Patrick at our post office and as I'm doing a double-take toward the door he's fast approaching me, hand extended. "You're a teacher here, right?" he asked, shaking my hand. I never introduced myself to him on Monday! How is it that this man picked me out of the crowd? We chatted for a bit and he is incredibly down-to-earth (he rented a bicycle and was seen pedaling throughout town all week!) He is so interested in other people and very approachable. I returned Thursday night for his free-to-the-public book talk and as I entered the room he waved from the opposite corner and greeted me "Hi Jordan!" Well Mr. Jennings, you've got yourself a new mega-fan!

We have hosted a lot of authors through Cedar Valley's Youth Read and entering this year, Patrick Jennings was probably the one I knew the least about. That being said, he is easily the one I have enjoyed the most.

Now I have some reading to catch up on . . . 15 books worth!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Trouble With May Amelia

I have not read OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA by Jennifer Holm. My first foray into the world of Ms. Holm came in reading TURTLE IN PARADISE this past year. Historical fiction is not always my cup of tea and perhaps that is why TURTLE IN PARADISE impressed me so. A genre of book I don't normally read for pleasure, yet I couldn't get Turtle and her Diaper Gang of cousins out of my mind. Anytime a book catches a reader off guard in a good way, it tends to linger on and leave a lasting impression.

Written in the same spunky, first person narrative style as TURTLE IN PARADISE, THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA grabbed me with it's opening sentence:

My brother Wilbert tells me that I'm like the grain of sand in an oyster. Someday I will be a Pearl, but I will nag and irritate the poor oyster and everyone else up until then.

May Amelia is far from irritating to me as a reader, but to her father and family full of boys, she's nothing but trouble. She's witty, she's strong-willed, she's not near as proper as she's expected to be, and she never lets anyone get the best of her. She's learned how to survive as the lone girl in her small pioneer farming community of boys in 1900, Washington State and she refuses to take guff from any of them. That is, until a business man comes to Pappa with a proposition and he needs May Amelia to translate to Finn for him. Suddenly, May Amelia begins to wonder herself if she's good for nothing.

As with TURTLE IN PARADISE, the strengths of this book come in May Amelia's voice, Holm's impeccable characterizations, and her strong sense of setting. Details specific to the time period and setting (such as the Dunking Box at school) make the dark, damp, and chill of Washington State in 1900 come alive off the page. And through May Amelia's eyes, each character grows and develops in realistic fashion through the course of the book. Her siblings are almost as memorable as the Diaper Gang!

Life in 1900 was a lot of work and Holm sugar coats nothing. The manual labor of maintaining a farm was not easy and each child shares the load. Pappa's job at the lumber mill is dangerous and when some of May Amelia's brothers are forced to work there as well, the danger is intensified. Balancing this gloom with May Amelia's witty humor, is done exceptionally well.

The thing that impressed me so while reading TURTLE IN PARADISE was how Jennifer Holm's figurative language was so fitting to the narrator's voice. The same is true with THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA. Every word from May Amelia was a word I fully believed she'd say. Look at some of these writing samples:
  • My brother Wendell wants to be a doctor, so he doesn't hold to things he can't squeeze between his fingers.
  • Sunday is a day of rest but nobody bothered to tell the big bear who knocked down the fence in our field where our sheeps graze.
  • It's spelling time and I'm starting to see Berle's point of view. Not much use in knowing how to spell words on a farm. The cows don't care if we can spell "hay.' All they want to do is eat it.
  • Sorry about stealing your teacher away, Mr. Clayton says to me. A good wife is hard to find. A good teacher is even harder to find, I reply.
In terms of plot, THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA may be even better than TURTLE IN PARADISE. It's a little tighter and not so far-fetched (as TURTLE became near it's conclusion). I do realize it's a little unfair to compare the two, as Holm has authored a book about May Amelia previously and Turtle is not even in this same universe, but TURTLE IN PARADISE is the only other Holm book I've read and the similarities were so striking, it was hard not to be reminded of it.

I debated about whether to read OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA first but decided against it. Often times when discussing the Newbery Medal and "sequels" the debate of whether or not the title can "stand alone" is brought up. When Newbery discussions heat up this winter, I fully expect THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA to be brought up. Not having read this book's predecessor, I can now attest to its ability to "stand alone".

Jennifer Holm is no stranger to the Newbery (Honoring in 2011, 2007, and 2000) and here's hoping THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA only follows suit!

Final Grade: A

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cedar Valley's Youth Read

Each year, the public libraries in the Cedar Valley join forces and help fund an author visit for our communities' fifth grade students. Being a fifth grade teacher, I joined this committee and now get to meet our selected authors as well! My first year teaching, I met Christopher Paul Curtis. The next two years I met authors Cynthia DeFelice and Will Hobbs. Meetings with Gennifer Choldenko and Wendy Mass followed those up.

This year, we welcome Patrick Jennings to the Cedar Valley, author of OUTSTANDING IN MY FIELD, WE CAN'T ALL BE RATTLESNAKES, and our focus book for his visit GUINEA DOG, just to name a few.

I have to be honest, before this I hadn't heard of Patrick Jennings. A coworker had read THE BEASTLY ARMS and loved it and another coworker had read THE WOLVING TIME and found it to be "odd." I had seen OUTSTANDING IN MY FIELD grace the pages of our Scholastic book orders, but had never purchased it or given it a read myself.

Our committee was working on a tight schedule and wanted to lock someone in place for this year (as we have someone big locked in for next year). Jennings was available, he was an author, and he has published tons of kid-friendly books, so we snatched him up. Little did I know, he's incredible!

Last year blogger Betsy Bird reviewed GUINEA DOG and had this to say about Patrick Jennings:

You've read him, right? No? Well that's fine with me. It's like when you discover this cool underground band, and you get to be their biggest fan all by yourself. It's great. You walk around with this knowledge in your head of, "I am into something incredible that only I know about." That's how it is with Patrick Jennings and me. Problem is, I keep recommending his books to the kids in my library. And if I keep this up, I may end up unexpectedly creating a whole host of Jennings fans. Then he'll get hugely popular and go mainstream and I'll have to share him with the rest of the world.

She went on to include GUINEA DOG in her list of 100 Magnificent Children's Books of 2010. With her high praise, I approached GUINEA DOG with fairly high expectations.

GUINEA DOG tells the story of Rufus and his plight for a pet dog. His obsessive father works at home and refuses to give into Rufus' request. His mother, feeling sorry for him, compromises by bringing Rufus home a guinea pig. But Rufus wanted a dog. And no matter how dog-like his mohawked guinea pig Fido acts, she's still a guinea pig. How will Rufus' new pet be received by his classmates? By his best friend Murphy? Will he ever get a dog?

First person narratives are popular in children's literature, which I find a little odd, given that most working authors are adults. In my opinion, first person narratives can be tricky. It takes a special author to truly climb inside the mind of a young person and project their thoughts and see the world through their eyes. And do it in a believable way! Jennifer Holm is one of the best. Andrew Clements is a master at getting inside kids' heads. Well Mr. Jennings, I just may have to add you to that list.

I was so impressed with how Patrick Jennings captured Rufus' voice. Read aloud in my classroom, my fifth graders laughed hysterically numerous times. They felt that this was Jennings' strongest feat (and I agreed). My class felt as if Rufus was one of them. He's funny. He's wry. And above all, he's believable. That's not always easy to accomplish in children's literature but Jennings has. He really knows how to speak to kids. Even his adults are spot on.

While being an easy read, there are some surprisingly deeper themes at work here too, especially about friendship and acceptance. Rufus is friends with Murphy. Best Friends. Dmitri wants to be Murphy's friend because Murphy is incredibly popular and welcoming to everyone. Rufus and Dmitri are not popular. The tension between the three is well written and drew my students in almost as much as the hi jinks involving Fido did. That should tell you something!

I'm very excited to meet Patrick Jennings now. There are some particular plot details I'd love to hear his explanation on. For instance, the reasons behind Fido's dog-like characteristics are never fully disclosed. Why does Fido act like a dog? Is Fido's purpose to teach Rufus sometimes life surprises you when you least expect it to? And what about the mysterious pet store from which Fido is purchased . . . why does it disappear? Where does it go? Did it ever really exist? Where did Fido actually come from?

GUINEA DOG was a funny, clever, romp of a read. It would be a perfect fit with reluctant boy readers, around 4th and 5th grade.

Final Grade: B+