Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Boy Detectives, Origami Yoda, and ADHD

With Newbery season behind us, I've been having some fun with my reading choices. I'm not yet worried about cramming for discussions about age appropriateness and the underappreciation of nonfiction. Instead, I've been playing catch up with some authors that have escaped me in recent years.

First up, Sara Pennypacker. The spunky little Miss Clementine is a tad young for the students I teach, so suffice it to say, these books had slipped under my radar until recently. I have a few students each year, who can't get into books and are always looking for something to read independently. Usually they can't get into books because they are trying to get into books that are too difficult for them. And surprisingly, I don't have this problem with boys too often! It's my social butterflies, my girls.

Clementine will be a perfect fit for them. She's funny. She's insightful. She's endearing. The readability of the books is easy. The plots are simple and straightforward. Yet the voice that Sara Pennypacker has perfected is a brand of quality that is not always found in easier readers like these. Clementine's zany narrative is so deprived of focus and attention, that for many of my students that battle their own attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, it has to be reassuring to read this girl's thoughts.

The thing I loved the most about each of the three titles I read, is the way Clementine is deeply loved by her family and accepted by those in charge at her school. So often in books like this, I feel like the teacher gets the bum rap, mistreating the student and misreading the student's intentions. Most teachers I know, are patient people. We have to be. I couldn't help thinking while I read, that if Clementine was in my class, I would love her! Thankfully, Pennypacker understands this too. Her teacher understands her. Her principal understands her. Sure she has to own up to the trouble she causes, but they are caring and patient with her, just like most teachers I know, would be. The same cannot be said for other children's books that portray children with ADHD. So often the teacher is viewed as the villain. This was rather refreshing.

There are five Clementine books and I have only read three (CLEMENTINE; THE TALENTED CLEMENTINE; and CLEMENTINE AND THE FAMILY MEETING). A sixth one is also on the way, CLEMENTINE AND THE SPRING TRIP. Ms. Pennypacker has dipped her ink in the FLAT STANLEY series (four books) and has a stand alone title coming out this year that promises to be worth the read (SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS). She's an author I highly recommend. It's easy to see why her work has wide appeal.

Next up, an author whose work may not have the same wide appeal . . . Tom Angleberger. I read THE STRANGE CASE OF ORIGAMI YODA last year and thoroughly enjoyed its unique approach to storytelling. Lots of boys gobbled it up too. Yet when I tried it as a read aloud with a mentor text writing lesson, it fell pretty flat. And this year, in my experience anyway, kids have grown bored with DARTH PAPER STRIKES BACK. It was widely read, no doubt. I just didn't see that same fevered excitement that I saw with ORIGAMI YODA. Boys read that book and recommended it to their friends. Then they reread it! With DARTH PAPER though, boys read it and say "Eh, that was okay, but I want to read THE HUNGER GAMES now!"

I tried HORTON HALFPOTT as a classroom read aloud too, and it just didn't work. Personally, I enjoyed it and it's English brand of humor, but not too many of my students did. The other thing I wondered about was Angleberger's chamilion-like departure of voice from his ORIGAMI YODA and DARTH PAPER books. The reason kids connected with them is because Angleberger was so effectively able to channel his inner 5th, 6th, or 7th grader and speak like real kids speak. HORTON HALFPOTT reads as if it was written by an entirely different author. It's wordy and descriptive and it's humor is very subjective. All humor is subjective in a way, but the humor present in this book, is just odd. I laughed out loud on a number of occasions, but my students were confused and found very little of it funny. By the time the book concluded, they could have cared less who stole the Lump. They just wanted to get on with the next Brixton Brothers book!

Which leads me to Mac Barnett . . . Having never read his first Brixton Brothers mystery, THE CASE OF THE CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY, I decided to use it as a mentor text in my writing class. I wanted to teach the students how to write mystery stories. This book was recommended to me and it was an immediate hit with my students. We had to go on and read the entire series.

Every book follows a similar pattern . . . boy detective Steve Brixton easily solves a case that has proved difficult to solve; Steve Brixton and his chum Dana get wrapped up in a bigger, seemingly unrelated case; Steve and Dana find themselves in many absurd, life-threatening adventures; Steve solves the bigger case which always ties back into the original, seemingly unrelated case. The second and third books also literally pick up right where the previous book left off. The best part about them, you never know where these books are going or just how crazy the adventure is going to get! Steve gets shot at by baddies, is kidnapped, is trapped in burning buildings, takes part in thrilling car chases, and falls out of second story windows on a regular basis. All the while providing a witty narrative that serves as a perfect How-To on how to write good old fashioned detective stories.

I had a lot of fun watching my students check out old Hardy Boys books from the library and see where author Mac Barnett's inspiration came from. I read the Hardy Boys growing up. I loved the Hardy Boys growing up. The Brixton Brothers tongue in cheek spoof on the Hardy Boys series was hilarious to me as an adult reader and when my students began investigating the Hardy Boys books, they saw the resemblance immediately. It was awesome!

Barnett has released three Brixton Brothers mysteries, each illustrated by none other than Adam Rex. THE CASE OF THE CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY kicks things off in thrilling fashion, while setting up the series perfectly. The second novel, THE GHOSTWRITER SECRET picks up right where the first novel left off and the reveal at the end, flips the entire series on its own head. A pretty daring move by Barnett to turn __________ into a baddie. The most recent, and third novel, IT HAPPENED ON A TRAIN, is the longest of the three and I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel like it. The beginning of the book tends to drag a little and a lot happens before anything actually happens! But, it picks up the speed and ends just as thrillingly as the preceding two.

I can't wait until the fourth, DANGER GOES BERSERK, is written and released. And I know my students agree.

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