book review: Blow, by Jodi Lundgren

[I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher (James Lorimer) via NetGalley. A version of this review has been submitted to NetGalley and will also be posted on Goodreads.]

I am always looking for good high interest-low reading level books for my adult basic ed students. Generally, I look for a few things in these books: clear, simple writing; interesting, fast-paced storyline; characters that are easy to relate to.

Jodi Lundgren’s YA novel Blow satisfies these three requirements. I estimate the reading level to be around Grade 9/10, making it a good match for my lower literacy young adult students. The book is definitely a page-turner; I read it very quickly and found that it maintained my interest–I wanted to know what would happen next. Even though some of the plot seemed slightly farfetched and simplistic, I was willing to suspend disbelief. Finally, I found the portrayal of the narrator (a shy, naive teenager who wants to fit in with her peers) likeable and realistic.

Another reason I liked this book and would recommend it to my students is the Canadian small town setting: it takes place in Red Deer, Alberta, and contains subtle but satisfying references to Canadian culture (e.g. Tim Horton’s, the RCMP, graduated driver’s license systems). I also appreciated the author’s references to social issues like racism and racial profiling. (Some of it is a little bit heavy handed, but for better or worse, heavy handedness seems to be a common feature of high-low readers. I’m on the fence about it, because although I personally don’t love it, I recognize that at a lower reading level it appeals to students who have not yet learned sophisticated textual analysis. Heavy handedness is an effective teaching tool, in other words.)

I would definitely recommend this as a purchase for my program’s collection of high-interest/low reading level books. I probably would not use it as an assigned text, only because I think it might not appeal so much to my older students who are further away from high school age. However, I would recommend it to younger students who are looking for an individual novel study.

about the art of historical storytelling

There is an excellent and fascinating piece by Danette Boucher in today’s Prince George Citizen about what it means to do historical storytelling, specifically in Barkerville:

Storytelling is, I believe, a great act of civilization. We share stories socially, we write them down, we speak them out loud. It’s part of how we make sense of ourselves. The humanity of storytelling includes understanding how and when one story fits into another story.

This week I was helping a new street interpreter wrestle with the challenge of Barkerville’s signature ‘town tour’ – perhaps the most complicated, abstract show I’ve ever been involved [in] during my career as a museum theatre specialist. We talked about the reasoning behind which stories are included and/or excluded from the formal presentation. There are so many Cariboo stories, and stories within stories, and we simply cannot cover them all in a single hour. Instead, we find ourselves having to cut stories we love because of time restraints, or relevance, or because a particular topic is being dealt with adequately by a different interpretive program. There are also situations, I said, when a story “just has to wait for its moment.” She seemed a little confused by this last utterance, and for good reason. It can be tricky to grasp the idea that, sometimes, a story needs to wait for just the right time and place to be told.

You can read the rest of it here: We Choose Our Stories Carefully In Barkerville.

book review: Secrets Underground: North America’s Buried Past, by Elizabeth MacLeod

[I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher (Annick Press) via NetGalley. A version of this review is also on Goodreads and has been submitted to NetGalley.]

Secrets Underground by Elizabeth MacLeod is a non-fiction book aimed at readers with about a grade 9/10 reading level. The book explores the hidden artifacts below the surface of six different places: Mexico City, San Francisco, Organ Cave in West Virginia, Moose Jaw, New York City, and The Greenbrier in West Virginia. Each chapter describes the buried secret and the historical event surrounding it. For example, the chapter on Moose Jaw talks about the tunnels where Chinese immigrants hid during the building of the Canadian Railway and about how gangsters used the tunnels during Prohibition.

The subject matter is high interest and the historic events are well chosen and diverse. The writing is clear and engaging, and the structure of each chapter, and of the book as a whole, is good.

The layout of the book is also appealing and well done. My one slight annoyance is the distracting nature of “Did you know?” fact boxes that I find interrupt the main narrative. However, this is a very common layout style for textbooks, and I think it’s probably just a personal peeve of mine and a matter of taste.

Overall, I liked this book a lot. I think I’d consider using it as an assigned text for a lower reading level group of young adult literacy learners, because it’s high interest while still being a manageable length and reading level. The chapter-by-chapter structure would make it easy for either independent reading where students chose specific topics of interest, or for reading as a whole class at various points throughout the semester.

book review: The Country of Ice Cream Star, by Sandra Newman

[I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher (Chatto and Windus/Random House Canada) via NetGalley. A version of this review is also on Goodreads and has been submitted to NetGalley.]

Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star is a YA novel about a young woman named Ice Cream Fifteen Star who lives in a post-plague event United States. For generations now, a contagious disease has killed everyone over a certain age; North American society bears no resemblance to its former self. The novel recounts the protagonist and her tribe’s struggle for survival in a brutal world.

The book is fast paced and tense, and one of its best features is the use of first-person narrative rather than clumsy exposition in world-building. The beginning of the novel plunges us into the middle of the action, but as we accompany Ice Cream in her day to day existence, the narrative slowly reveals small details that eventually form a clearer picture of her society.

And now the one downside: although I know it can be done effectively (e.g. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, part of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas), I am not a big fan of narratives told completely in dialect. I admire the way Newman commits wholeheartedly to her characters’ invented patois, but if not done skilfully, this style can be precious and annoying. It’s a fine line, and unfortunately I think this novel treads it too closely.

In terms of using the novel for a literature course, I’ve decided while I would not use it as an assigned text, I might recommend it to individual students whom I know are a) interested in dystopian fiction and b) not easily frustrated or put off by the use of dialect for several hundred pages.

Jenny Horsman for TEDx Toronto

This post is reblogged from Kate Nonesuch’s blog, Working in Adult Literacy. I don’t know Jenny Horsman personally like Kate does, but I’ve used her work in my professional practice, and I think she has innovative ideas that need to be widely shared. So I’ve put in a TEDx nomination and if you feel the same, I encourage you to do so as well. Here are Kate’s words: