Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Classic Connections - King of Ithaka and The Sherlockian

In my last blog I talked about my 2010 revision of What's New in Young Adult Novels? and discussed the three new instructional units that I added. One of my favorite updated units in the book is entitled "Classic Connections." Many modern YA authors are following the time honored tradition of retelling a classic story in a modern setting (Beastly by Alex Flinn) or incorporating elements of a classic in a modern tale (Saving Juliet by Suzanne Selfors). By having students read and compare the classic and the related modern novel, teachers can expose kids to plots that form the backbone of literature and help them appreciate the clever variations that the modern authors imagine. Two new books which can be added to this lexicon of classic connections are King of Ithaka by Tracy Barrett in which the author recreates the voyage Telemachos takes to find his father Odysseus, and The Sherlockian by Graham Moore which alternates the present day story of a Sherlockian scholar’s death with the story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker’s investigation of a series of murders in the early 1900s.

If you are looking for classic connections to Greek Mythology, Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians five book series or his new Heroes of Olympus series immediately come to mind. The new series introduces Jason, Piper and Leo, three of the seven demigods mentioned in Rachel’s prophesy in The Last Olympian. These troubled teens are at wilderness school in the Grand Canyon when they encounter evil storm spirits and are transported to Camp Half-Blood. However, if you are looking for a book with deeper mythological connections, you may want to read Tracy Barrett's King of Ithaka, which reimagines Telemachos' quest to find his father Odysseus, King of Ithaka. When the book opens Telemachos has been waiting 16 years for his father to return from the Trojan Wars. His mother, Penelopeia, has been weaving a burial shroud whose completion she is using as an excuse to fend off would-be suitors, who think it's high time she remarries. Telemachos, who is worried about his country's lack of leadership, says, "I knew that Ithaka was falling into ruin and was vulnerable to attack, both from within and from without." He consults an oracle, who prophesies that Ithaka will not have a king until Telemachos searches for Odysseus and returns "to the place that is not, on the day that is not, bearing the thing that is not. On that day the King will return." With his centaur friend, Brax, and Polydora, a female runaway, Telemachos puts aside his fears and sets sail. He travels through dangerous territory from Pylos to Sparta. In a first person narration he tells the tale of his journey during which he meets many famous mythological characters, some who help him and some who deter him in his quest to fulfill the mysterious prophesy.

Based on real life events, The Sherlockian by Graham Moore embellishes the story of the death of a modern Sherlockian scholar, who was to present his finding of a lost Conan Doyle diary at the annual Baker Street Irregulars convention, but died on the eve of his presentation. The fictional Harold White, who has just been inducted into the society when the Sherlockian dies, is hired by a Conan Doyle relative to investigate the death and the whereabouts of the diary . The lost diary chronicles the story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker’s investigation of a series of murders of young suffragettes. The author alternates his chapters between Harold's story in the present and Conan Doyle and Stoker's investigation in the early 1900s, so the reader can understand why the two would want to suppress the diary. The Sherlockian is arguably an adult crossover book which has some vulgar language and violence. However, any student who is reading Sherlock Holmes stories, will undoubtedly be comfortable with the subject matter and will revel in the backstory of Conan Doyle's period of abandonment of Sherlock Holmes and his dabbling in detective work using Holme's techniques.

What's New In Young Adult Novels? 2010

I just published the 2010 revision of my book, What's New in Young Adult Novels? and Ideas for Classroom Use. It includes reviews of over 130 new young adult books, as well as three new units. "Art World Connections" details YA novels, which explore the characters’ connections with the arts, as well as their ability to express themselves through artistic renderings. Many characters in these books escape the conflict in their lives by disappearing into artistic endeavors. Their art work helps them work through problems in a constructive manner. Included in the unit are art related projects that students can create which reflect what they learned from the book. The projects can take many forms, depending on the art form explored in the novel. Some of my favorite books that lend themselves to this project include Masterpiece by Elise Broach, Invisible Lines by Mary Amato, and Same Difference by Siobhan Vivian.

"Cultural Comparisons" is a new unit that focuses on YA novels that involve a foreign or minority culture. Students are asked to compare and contrast their own culture to the one profiled in the book as they read, and ultimately write a comparison/contrast essay as their final project. Graphic organizers are provided for the essay and the initial data gathering. There is also an example essay for Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok. Other books I would recommend for this unit include Finding My Place by Traci Jones, A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata and A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park.

The "Amazon Web Page" unit is one I based on Betsey Coleman's "Camazon project" at the Colorado Academy in Denver, Colorado. The “Camazon” project, instructs students in creating a mock Amazon web page for an assigned book. The project not only has students using the latest technology, but also requires them to use higher level thinking skills in reflecting on their reading. For an Amazon web page, students include product details and a list of the author's other books, write spotlight reviews, create a "customers who bought this book also bought/viewed these books," section, and write an email to a friend about the book. Students make connections between the books they have read and the book they are reviewing; they use their own voice to respond, and they provide evidence in their spotlight reviews. Although the Colorado Academy project was technology based, (This year students used Glogster and last year Dreamweaver to create their projects) I think the ideas could be adapted for simpler projects. If access to or knowledge of technology is limited, teachers could assign a print project, rather than a web based product.

As always the hardest part of my revision was to determine a cutoff date for books to include. I still have plenty of 2010 novels sitting on my bookcase which I will have to include in my 2011 revision. I will be blogging about these books throughout the year, as I continue my quest to read and recommend the best YA books available. If you are interested in buying What's New in Young Adult Novels? 2010, there is a link on this web site which will connect you to Lulu.com where it can be purchased for $14.95.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Ron Kidd's Historical Fiction

If you are looking for well-researched historical fiction, I would highly recommend several novels by Ronald Kidd. My sister-in-law, who is acquainted with him in Nashville, saw him recently and mentioned my interest in young adult novels, and he sent me copies of three terrific novels: Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial, On Beale Street, and The Year of the Bomb. Each book has an informative afterword in which Ron provides details about the historical incidents and people he weaves into his young adult coming-of-age tales.

Ron was inspired to write Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial, when he went to a reenactment of the trial with his friend Craig Gabbert in the summer of 1994. There he met Craig's mother Frances Robinson Gabbert, whose tales of the trial intrigued him. Her father, druggist F.E. Robinson was the local drugstore owner and school board chairman, who suggested a publicity stunt which would take advantage of the Civil Liberties Union's desire to test the state's law against teaching evolution in schools. Robinson asks John T.Scopes, a teacher/coach, to be "arrested" for violating the state's law to help boost the town's economy. Scopes reluctantly agrees, and is stunned when Clarence Darrow arrives to defend him and William Jennings Bryan to head up the prosecution. In Monkey Town, Frances Robinson is a 15-year-old girl who has a crush on John Scopes and defies her father, who masterminds the publicity stunt, to defend "Johnny." Ron uses actual dialogue from the trial and includes many historical figures, such as H.L. Mencken, as he weaves the story of a young girl struggling to understand the behavior of her friends and neighbors, as well as whether evolution has a place in the classroom.

Ron sets On Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee in 1954, suggesting it is an excellent place to begin a study of race relations. The main character, 15-year-old Johnny Ross, is a white boy who lives in a segregated world, until he starts sneaking out and going to Beale Street, the heart of the Negro blues and music scene. There he meets Elvis Presley, who tells him about Sun Records where he hopes to record music. Johnny begins working for Sam Phillips at Sun and develops a relationship with Elvis, as well as other notables such as Nat D. Williams and Dewey Phillips, who broadcast the ground breaking radio program Red, Hot and Blue. As Johnny gets more involved with people in the music business, he discovers ties to secrets from the past and a father he never knew.

A fan of horror movies, Ron spent time watching them with his friends on Hollywood Blvd in the early 1960s. Discovering that Invasion of the Body Snatchers was filmed in 1955 in Sierra Madre, California and Richard Feynman, one of the inventors of the atomic bomb and the subject of an FBI investigation, lived a few miles away in Altadena, Ron was inspired to combine the two ideas in The Year of the Bomb. In the book four 13-year-old boys, fans of horror films themselves, are ecstatic to find out The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is being filmed in their town. Visiting the set, they meet two FBI agents posing as extras, who are investigating the filmmakers for possible Communist ties, as well as a scientist named Richard Feynman. The boys decide to do some investigating of the own and find out Richard was friends with Klaus Fuchs, who sold secrets to the Russians. The boys disagree over whether to turn over their findings to the FBI, as they realize it's not always easy to agree on what is the "right thing" to do.