a quote from my favorite author

“The most solid advice, though, for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

-William Saroyan, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Sunday, October 30, 2011

One Weekend = Four Books from a Growing Stack and A Long Post

Wonderstruck: experiencing a sudden feeling of awed delight or wonder (according to google)

What a delicious word to describe a delicious feeling. 

What a perfect title for this book.  I am not even sure it should be called a book at all, but rather an experience

Unlike The Invention of Hugo Cabret (also by Brian Selznick), where the images pick up and carry the story right where the text leaves off, the images in Wonderstruck tell a story that is parallel to the text. 

The way the images and text work together reminded of me of a ‘match cut’ edit in film.  The action being described in the text matches the image that follows or precedes the text.  However, the character, the time, the place, and the situation of the action are not the same.  In film this is a way to visually bridge two separate scenes.  In the book, this serves to link the two stories together, so that as a reader we expect them to eventually merge.  And they do.

In addition to the craft with which the story is told, I was captivated by the idea of the story itself.  Ben is on a mission to uncover the truth about his biological father, while the reader is on a mission to uncover how his truth connects to the story told through images.  The first connection readers uncover is that both characters  are hearing impaired.  Off the top of my head, I can only name 2 other books for middle school students that include characters who are deaf without that being the central storyline: Granny Torelli Makes Soup by Sharon Creech and Feathers by Jaqueline Woodson.  The inclusion of deaf culture, and especially in its historical context, is only one of the hidden gems that add to the richness of the story.

Another gem is the book within the book. I especially loved the ideas about museums Ben reads in the book he finds:

But let us pause here and ask ourselves, What exactly is a museum?  Is it a collection of acorns and leaves on a back porch, or is it a giant building costing tens of thousands of dollars, built to house the rarest and finest things on Earth?

‘It’s both!’ Ben heard himself say out loud.

Of course the answer is both.  A museum is a collection of objects, all carefully displayed to tell some kind of magnificent story.”

I was even more interested in the idea that Ben himself could be considered a curator.  The idea that we could all be considered curators.  Of our own collections. 

Clearly, I was not only “wonderstruck” by the story, but by the manner in which it was told.  Selznick is a genius.  After hearing him describe the way he wrote The Invention of Hugo Cabret, I read Wonderstruck with deepened appreciation for his craft.  I knew how much research, thought, and planning went into each of those images.  I imagined that each image began as a sketch the size of a thumbnail, the way Selznick had described the starting images for Hugo Cabret.  I imagined the people he photographed as models for his characters.  I imagined which images of the settings were truly representative of an actual place.

While reading, my mind was ablaze with ideas for using this text in classrooms.  There are endless possibilities for strategy mini-lessons, springboards for writing or research, and discussions about the way images and text work together to tell the story. 

But most of all, I just love this book because it is such a cool story.

This year, I have found myself repeating the phrase, “The real story is in the character,” in my 8th grade language arts classroom.  I have always taught about dynamic characters, but it seems that all of a sudden, I have a deeper understanding of the way stories work and how to translate that to my students.  If they really get to know the character in a story, they can’t go wrong.  It is less about that plot diagram we try to drill into them and more about the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings, and especially about any shift in the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings.

Blood Wounds is the perfect example of this.  Although Willa’s life is not perfect, she has always believed she is part of a “happy family.”  Until something happens to change that. 

Willa lives with her mother, stepfather, and stepsisters.  She has never really known the dad her mother ran away from when she was young.  He has never been part of her life.  Until now.

Willa gets news one day that her biological father is suspected of having killed his new wife and two daughters.  His third daughter is missing, and so is he.  The police believe he is on his way to find Willa and her mom. 

This sounds like the makings of an action packed thriller of a story.  But it’s not.  Instead it is a touching coming of age story set against one of the most gruesome and dramatic plots I’ve ever experienced.  Willa experiences the kind of circumstance that will undoubtedly draw teenage readers in.  The book is edgy and pulls no punches in describing the impact of these events on Willa. 

However, this is the type of story that needs to be seen through to the resolution.  If readers are not prepared to travel with Willa as she grows and changes in the face of horrific events, they will miss the story and could end up just experiencing disturbing scenes. 

This is one I will be happy to pass along to student readers, but I think it will rest on the shelf by my desk, where I can more closely monitor and confer with whoever is reading it.  


I am a sucker for a book written in verse.  I picked Kaleidoscope Eyes up at our latest book fair because I fell in love with Jen Bryant’s Pieces of Georgia after picking up a free galley copy at a conference years ago.  I did not fall in love with Lyza, the protagonist of Kaleidoscope Eyes the way I fell in love with Georgia, but I am still a big Jen Bryant fan.

It is not easy to find books set in the ‘60s that paint a picture of the time period that is accessible to students without being explicit.   This book reminds me of Countdown by Deborah Wiles in the innocence of the story.  Both books have an innocent story of friendship set against the tumultuous backdrop of America in the ‘60s, and both books use a unique format to tell the story.

Although this book didn’t have me in tears like Ann E.Burg’s All the Broken Pieces (another novel in verse set during the Vietnam War), there are many poignant lines that stopped me dead in my tracks as a reader. 

When Lyza’s grandfather dies, she uncovers an envelope he left behind for her, and only her.  The envelope leads Lyza and her friends on a journey to uncover the secrets of pirates who once headed through her town.  The journey for treasure, of course, leads her to discoveries about her friends, her family, and herself.

The ending may be a bit too easy to be realistic, but in these ‘troublous times’ (as Carlo Jago would say) it is not a bad thing to escape into a world where hidden treasures are uncovered.

He had me at the introduction.  I read this book in one sitting.  I couldn’t put it down.

The introduction begins:

“I was one of the kids who slipped through the cracks.  I had what is euphemistically referred to as a troubled childhood.

We were broke, my parents were drunk, they had—another euphemism here—an unhappy marriage.  I was an outsider at school and I pretty much raised myself at home.  I had nothing and I was going nowhere.

But then art and dogs saved me.

First reading, then writing.  First friend-pets, then sled dogs.  They gave me hope that I wouldn’t always be stuck in the horror of my childhood, made me believe that there could be more to my life.”

From there, Paulsen proceeds to tell the stories of three young people.  Each of them living “what is euphemistically referred to as a troubled childhood.”  Each of them saved by art or dogs (or both). 

Somehow Paulsen paints the realistic image of hopeless situations, yet finds a way to leave the reader with a feeling of hope. 

Paintings from the Cave does not disappoint as a book truly representative of Paulsen’s breadth of work.  In its pages, I find echoes of the survival instinct he shared in Hatchet, the strength of friendship he shared in Notes from the Dog, and the power of a bond with animals that he shared in My Life in Dog Years.  In addition, in true Paulsen-style, as enjoyable as the stories themselves, is the language Paulsen uses to tell those stories:

“It didn’t matter what she read.

What did matter was that when she read, she could forget how ugly her life was.

She read aloud to the dogs when they were in the woods or in her room with the dresser pushed across the door.  They usually fell asleep, but even if they didn’t pay attention, reading to them made the words go inside her the way the moonlight had gone into her, so that she felt-heard-smelled the words.”

Perhaps most striking of all the beauty in this book is the way it answers the question Paulsen references in his introduction.  The question a student asked him.  The one he didn’t have an answer for.  Until now. Through this book.

There is no telling how many lives Paulsen’s art has touched, but I know it touched mine, and I will do all I can to get it into the hands of more students whose lives it may touch.


  1. You really read a lot this weekend, and it sounds like a wonderful experience all the way through. I haven't read Wonderstruck, but an interview with him was fascinating. Thanks for the heads up about the middle two books; I don't know either one, so will keep them on a TBR list. I love Gary Paulsen. He threads much through his writing about books. This one sounds lovely. I just read The Crossing, so Paulsen has his themes and no matter what the living being, it's about survival. Thanks for the great reviews.

  2. Thanks so much for the reviews on these books! Sounds like my Amazon cart will be filling up again!

  3. Now I need to find my way to the local Barnes - these sound awesome! Thanks for sharing.