Book talks for readers at Chisago Lakes Middle School.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Truce by Jim Murphy, War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, and Day of the Assassins by Johnny O'Brien

The Blindside is one of my favorite movies of the year. The inspirational movie is based on the true rags-to-riches story of Michael Oher. Today, Michael Oher is a successful offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL, but as a child Michael courageously faced a daily life of adversity and tragedy.He was poor and he lacked the education most kids his age deserve. His future looked bleak when suddenly his circumstances changed because of the generosity of a well-to-do family that took Michael into their home. The family eventually adopted him.

Like other movies that are based on a true story, this one probably took dramatic license with some of the details. One powerful scene from the movie showed how Michael struggled to write an essay that would qualify him for college. He chose to write an essay on the poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred Lord Tennyson. The poem is about 600 brave British cavalry soldiers that charge with horse and sabre against an enemy that fires back with rifle and canon. Flesh and blood against metal and gunpowder. Guess who wins.

"Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them,
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell,
Rode the six hundred."

Duty, honor, courage. These qualities are important to Michael Oher. They mean something. However, did 600 soldiers on the backs of horses have a chance against bullets and canon shells? Not a chance. As I reflect on the movie, Blindside, I'm inspired, but as I reflect on the poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, the more I get... disturbed. The men of the light brigade obeyed orders. They fulfilled their duty. They were honored for their courage. They looked death directly in the eye as the fog of war surrounded them, but how can we ignore the insanity of the one who gave the order for that suicidal charge?

I would now like to turn your attention to a new non-fiction book about World War 1 called, Truce, by Jim Murphy. The book concisely describes what World War 1 was like but also points to significant and strange incident that occurred, as if a giant heavenly hand pressed the pause button in the middle of the war. I am referring to the incident that occurred in 1914 when soldiers from both sides decided not to follow orders so they could briefly honor peace-on-earth and good-will-toward-men. It is now called the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Duty, honor, courage, and even excitement were good enough reasons for many to volunteer by the hundreds of thousands to fight World War 1. Yet, once they saw No Man's Land, that barren crater-pocked barb-wired field of death that laid a few hundred yards between both sides, many questioned to themselves what they were fighting for.

World War 1 is somewhat of a mystery to some. Ask someone about World War 2 and you'll get a response, but ask what World War 1 was about, not many will tell you. Another reason it may more mysterious than World War 2 may be the fact that both ancient and modern methods of war were used. Modern methods used included poison gas, tanks, planes, and machine guns. What many of you might not know is that horses played a prominent role in World War 1.

Horses were used to move artillery. Horses were used to move the wounded. At the beginning of the war horses were even used in cavalry charges, like in, The Charge of the Light Brigade. Can you imagine mounted cavalry going against a line of machine gunners nested in protective trenches [p.23]? Slaughter. Eventually generals on both sides figured out that horses didn't have a chance against machine guns. Yet, the generals never did figure out that sending soldiers across a No-Man's-Land against machine guns and artillery fire was equally ineffective.

World War 1 basically turned into a war fought between two opposing sides dug into trenches that shot at each other everyday. Occasionally one side would try to charge across No Man's Land until most of them were mowed down by machine guns, rifle fire, shrapnel or poison gas. Those that survived would retreat to plan their next suicidal mission. Slaughter.

The insanity of how World War 1 was fought may explain the strange truce informally declared that first Christmas of the war. The generals on both sides forbade their soldiers to stop fighting on Christmas, but on December 24th, songs like Silent Night and the First Noel broke the silence of cold air separating enemy trenches. Instead of flashes of light from bombs and gunfire, candle light glowed from trenches across the barren No Man's Land. Almost along the entire war front soldiers disobeyed orders and refused to fight on the Christmas Truce of World War 1. [p.60]

When news of this remarkable event reached back to the generals they were furious. Truce, by Jim Murphy, is a remarkable story of how a moment of sanity prevailed for one brief moment in the midst of the War to End All Wars.

On the subjects of World War 1 and horses, I would also like to recommend, War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo.

War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo, is told from first person point of view, or should I say 1st horse point of view. In this book, a story about World War 1 is told from the point of view of a horse named Joey. Joey is an impressive steed. A British Captain knew Joey would be a valuable addition when he bought him from the farm family who had to sell the horse or lose their farm. In chapter 8, we find Joey trained and ready to play his part in a British cavalry brigade. Joey likes Captain Nichols and despite the fact that he is a big man the captain knows how to ride light on Joey.

News quickly spread. The enemy had been sighted. Orders were given.

"Forward! Form squadron column! Draw swords!"

Then you can imagine Joey's heart pumping as he says:

"Out of the corner of my eye, I was aware of the glint of Captain Nicholls's sword. I felt his spurs in my side, and I heard his battle cry. I saw gray soldiers ahead of us raise their rifles and heard the death rattle of a machine gun, and then quite suddenly I found that I had no rider, that I had no weight on my back anymore, and that I was alone out in front of the squadron."

Brave horse that he was, Joey continued galloping right into the kneeling riflemen that scattered as he came upon them. As Joey looked behind him, bodies of soldiers and horses were strewn everywhere. In their first action, over a quarter of the squadron had been wiped out. Horses were no match for machine guns, but at the beginning of the war some thought they only wanted to win the war if the cavalry could win it. Did they forget what happened in, The Charge of the Light Brigade?

Will Joey have the courage to face another charge against an enemy with machine guns? What will happen to him if he is wounded? Will Joey survive World War 1 and ever see his farm family again?

If you like war stories, I would recommend War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo.

Related Website:

Information on a musical about the Christmas Truce at MPR.

Bonus Book: Day of the Assassins by Johnny O'Brien

If you are looking for another fiction book about World War 1 and don't mind a little time-travel thrown in, I'd like to suggest, Day of the Assassins, to you. Find out how an assassination of one man led to one of the bloodiest wars in human history.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Bystander by James Preller

Besides reading, I love to listen to funny storytellers. Some of my favorite storytellers include Bill Cosby and Kevin Kling. Kevin Kling told a story on public radio recently that I would like to share with you. [share selected audio clip]

The Kling brothers go searching for Jeffrey because he tattles on them and it's time for payback, but when the Kling brothers find him, do they know what to do next?

While in their grasp Jeffrey says, "No, no, don't take me into the woods."

Then the Kling brothers respond, "We are taking you into the woods!"

Jeffrey says, "No, no, don't tie me to the picnic table."

The Kling brothers reply, "We are tying you to a picnic table!"

Jeffrey says, "No, no, don't pour peaches on my head."

The Kling brothers call out, "Somebody go back to camp and get some peaches!"

Jeffrey doesn't realize that what he is doing is instructing the Kling brothers step- by-step on how to terrorize him.

(Why was Jeffrey so specific? What can you infer, or conclude, about Jeffrey? Was he a former bully, bystander or victim?)

Unlike the Kling brothers, the bully in the book, Bystander, by James Preller, definitely knows what he's doing. Griffen tells the new kids he draws into his dark world to call him Griff. What takes most of his unsuspecting new recruits weeks to discover is that Griff is a liar, bully, and a thief. We are also introduced to Eric Hayes, the new kid in town. Eric has just moved with his mom and younger brother from Ohio to Bellport, Long Island, and doesn't know anyone. He definitely doesn't know whom to avoid.

The book begins with Eric shooting buckets outside, alone, on the middle school cement basketball courts when he notices a boy running away from the school all covered in red glop. To Eric there is something strange about the whole scene. The boy looks like he is running for his life, but there isn't anyone chasing him. From a distance the red glop looks like red paint. Or, is it blood?

Then the narrator tells us that the boy headed in Eric's direction:

"You okay?" asked Eric.

The boy came to a halt and stared at Eric. He looked distrustful, a dog that had been hit by too many rolled-up newspapers.

Eric stepped forward, gestured to the boy's shirt. "Is that blood?"

There was a flash of something else there, just a fleeting something in the boy's eyes: hatred. Hot, dark hatred.

"No, no.," the boy said.

Then Eric smelled it, a familiar whiff, and he knew. Ketchup. The boy was covered with ketchup.

Then, in the very next chapter Griff introduces himself to Eric. Griff takes care of Eric, the new kid. Eric immediately gains buddies, recognition and a place with Griff's boys at the lunch table. Friendship with Griff has its benefits, but unknown to Eric, Griff is responsible for what happened to ketchup boy. What will Eric do if Griff comes calling for Eric to join in on the fun? What will Eric do if Griff finds ketchup boy alone, and offers to give a live demonstration to show Eric how it's done?

Does Eric have the courage to do the right thing or will he join in the fun with Griff? Or, will Eric fall in with a long line of bystanders instead and just watch?

The following words by Martin Luther King Jr. haunt the chapters that follow:

"In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Killer Pizza by Greg Taylor

Do you like Hawaiian? How about Chicago style? Maybe it's the Cowboy at Papa Murphy's?

What's your favorite pizza?

There sure are some strange combinations of pizza toppings out there, too. I love chicken and pineapple on thin crust! When you add those sweet glistening lego sized rectangles of tropical gold, the taste completely morphs into something spectacular! However, some of you may think adding pineapple morphs the taste into something horrible.

[Show picture of a gargoyle] Can anyone identify what's in the picture?

Gargoyles and pizza? What a strange combination. I'm not suggesting gargoyles on pizza. What I am trying to foreshadow has to do with something that morphs or transforms into a horrible combination in the book, Killer Pizza, by Greg Taylor.

In, Killer Pizza, by Greg Taylor, we find Toby McGill working at a new pizza shop named Killer Pizza on opening day. It's Toby's first job. He's thrilled. He's a little nervous, too. Toby's dream is to be a chef someday and any gig he can get working with food can't be all bad. Toby is also a little nervous because he has a lot to learn. From making pizza to answering the phone the proper way, Toby is a rookie and rookies don't get much respect.

The opening day of the new Killer Pizza franchise didn't go as planned. Toby's training didn't prepare him for the huge rush of orders. You can imagine the number of mistakes Toby and the other rookies made that day as they answered the phone and tried to remember what went into menu items such as the Creature Double Feature (two medium sized pizzas), or a Monstrosity (extra large with everything), or a side order like Vampire Stakes (pointed garlic sticks with red dipping sauce). Toby and the others barely survived their first shift. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be their last. Surprising for a first day on the job, Toby and the other rookies somehow impressed their boss Harvey. However, Harvey wasn't necessarily impressed with their pizza making skills. He had hired Toby and the others for another reason-gargoyles. Well, something like gargoyles. For now, there is no other way to explain them.

You see, the real reason Harvey hired Toby and the others had something to do with what happened to Chelsea Travers a few days earlier.

"Run! Don't look back! Just run!!!"

Chelsea Travers, a fifteen year-old girl, by herself in the dark, barefoot, with trees preventing the moonlight from penetrating to the forest floor to help guide her, ran for her life.

"Help! Someone, please...HELP ME!"

As Chelsea's nervous system reacted by infusing a much needed adrenaline burst to her muscles, her conscience also kicked into overdrive. What had she been thinking, walking home alone in the woods that night?

"What is this thing chasing me, anyway?!"

Chelsea was terrified. She got a glimpse of it. There were bursts of snarls like from an animal. But, "what kind of animal ran on two legs?" As her heart pounded, her lungs screaming, the terror slackened for a split second as she spotted a road up ahead that could lead to safety. Then Chelsea tripped, twisting her ankle. Hope never seemed so far away. As she picked herself up she experienced a "searing flash of pain" that exploded in the back of her thigh.

"Chelsea whirled to defend herself. Her eyes widened when she saw what was standing...towering over her." Her head felt like it was spinning. "She felt like she'd been injected with some kind of sedative. As much as she urged herself to fight, to run, to do something to get away from the silent, bizarre creature that had bitten her, all Chelsea could do was sink to both knees. She was going fast and she knew it. The creature stepped toward Chelsea, its foot filling her fuzzy-and quickly fading-field of vision." The last thing she saw was the creature's bare feet walking up to her, and strangely, in her final confusing moments as she lay paralyzed on the damp forest floor, she noticed what was on one of the creature's deformed feet-a toe ring!

What happened to Chelsea Travers was unknown to Toby McGill, but Toby's boss Harvey knew something. Harvey knew that the creature that bit Chelsea Travers was like the one he had hanging lifelessly on a hook, wrapped in plastic, and locked securely in Killer Pizza's basement freezer. Harvey also knew one more thing that Toby didn't-that Toby was more than just a good pizza maker. Toby had what it took to deal with whatever it was that attacked Chelsea Travers that night.

What was the creature that bit Chelsea Travers? Why did it have on a toe ring? What skills does Toby possess besides tossing pizza dough into the air? And, what makes Harvey so sure the creature hanging on the hook in the freezer is really dead?

If you like R.L. Stine and/or American Chillers, if you like books about monsters, then I would like to recommend, Killer Pizza, by Greg Taylor.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: the Classic Regency Romance-Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem by Jane Austen and Seth Graham-Smith

Those familiar with the original story know that Mrs. Bennett is obssessed with finding husbands for the Bennetts' five daughters. Life could be difficult for an unmarried woman in 18th century England. So, Mrs. Bennett's singular purpose in life is to train her five girls in the arts of conversation and civilized manners, making them more desirable to prospective suitors.

However, the story immediately takes on an unfamiliar morbid twist. Mr. Bennett of course is annoyed with his wife's incessant efforts to marry off his daughters. In contrast with his wife, his main concern is their survival-to train them in the arts of self-defense. The reason: a plague has stricken the land causing the dead to come back to zombies. In polite, civilized, cultured company the proper term to refer to the living dead (zombies)is to call them an unmentionable or one that is a member of the unfortunate scourge.

Instead of dreaming about boys, Mr. Bennett prefers his five girls to think about applying themselves to the deadly arts. Only by training them in the martial arts and the proper handling of lethal weapons will he guarantee his main mission in life: to prevent his family from joining the ranks of the living dead.

News reaches the Bennett household that two young gentlemen have arrived to visit at a nearby estate. Both are extremely rich, and available. The Bennetts are invited to a ball where there will be dancing, but more importantly, where introductions will be made. Mrs. Bennett hopes her girls will compare favorably on the opinions of the two visiting young gentlemen.

At the ball one of the prospective suitors, named Mr. Bingley, comments to his friend, Mr.Darcy, that he has never met with so many pleasant girls in one place in his whole life. It doesn't go unnoticed to Mrs. Bennett that Mr. Bingley dances twice with her eldest daughter Jane. Everyone immediately takes a liking to Mr. Bingley, especially Jane. However, the same feeling is not equally shared about Mr. Darcy. Even Mrs. Bennett herself thinks Mr. Darcy to be the proudest, most disagreeable, man in the world.

Both Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy wistfully remark to each other at how beautiful Jane Bennett is. Unfortunately, Mr. Darcy also comments to his friend that Jane's sister, Elizabeth, is only tolerable, and not pretty enough to interest him.

Elizabeth overhears Mr. Darcy and "her blood turns cold." She has never been so insulted in her entire life. She impulsively reaches down by her ankle where she secretly keeps a dagger hidden under her dress. She means to threaten Mr. Darcy with bodily harm when suddenly a scourge of unmentionables shatter the windows and crash into the ballroom.

"Unmentionables poured in, their movements clumsy yet swift; their burial clothing in a range of untidiness...Their flesh was in varying degrees of [rot and decay];the freshly stricken were slightly green and pliant, whereas the longer dead were gray and brittle-their eyes and tongues long since turned to dust, and their lips pulled back into everlasting skeletal smiles."

In the mayhem, Mr. Bennett shouted orders he knew would be received by five sets of highly trained ears:

"Girls! Pentagram of Death!"

The five girls pressed their backs against each other in a fighting formation that looked like a five-pointed star, pleasing their father no doubt as they confronted the deadly horde of party crashers. In one graceful motion, the girls reached for their daggers with one hand, and politely placed their free hands behind them in the small of their backs. Lunging with extended dagger thrusts, the girls worked in harmony as they beheaded the swarm of attacking zombies.

As the story continues, we later learn that Jane is involved in another fracas with the zombies, and has possibly been bitten by one of them. As Elizabeth risks her life to be by Jane's side, she is ambushed by three of the unmentionables. All three with arms extended, mouths locked wide open, would make anyone pause to reflect on a "universally acknowledged" truth about all zombies:

"A zombie in possession of brains mut be in want of more brains."

The questions I leave you with are almost baffling in themselves considering what Seth Graham-Smith has done to a story that many consider a masterpiece of world literature.

Will Elizabeth Bennett survive the ambush?

Does Jane Bennett transform into a zombie?

What will Mr. Bingley think of Jane then?

And, what about Mr. Darcy? Did Elizabeth catch his eye with her display of eloquence, grace, and deadly accuracy as she lifted a zombie by the scalp and thrusted her dagger into its neck?

Find out in this genre-defying classics-shattering adaptation by Seth Graham-Smith that might even cause Jane Austen to disturb her grave with laughter; may she rest in peace.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Interview with Jessica Schmidt

Do you know what a Tsunami is? Some people call it a tidal wave. It is usually created by an earthquake or avalanche of rock under an ocean's waters. Displacement of water creates the wave that is nearly undedectible until it reaches shore with devastating results. Just a couple weeks ago a Tsunami struck the Samoa islands in the Pacific with fatal results. What warnings are there to indicate that a Tsunami is approaching? Sometimes there is a drawback in which the water along shore is sucked out into the ocean, exposing the bottom for hundreds of yards. A drawback only gives a person a matter of minutes to run for higher ground before the Tsunami hits. Other warning systems involve ocean buoys that try to detect changes in pressure along the ocean floor, but this warning system isn't always sufficient.

Did you know that someone from our community, someone that went to school here at CLMS a few years ago, is currently working on solving the problems with detecting Tsunamis in order to save more lives in the future?

I would like to introduce you to Jessica Schmidt. She also goes by the first name of Jecca. Jecca attended CLMS from 1999-2002. (She probably would prefer you didn't do the math to find out how old she is now.) I wanted you to know about Jessica, not only because she is a good example to follow, but also because of the important work she is doing. Jessica's work and research has taken her around the world as the picture below illustrates. I also wanted you to know what she is doing because the subject of her research plays such a prominent role in one of this year's featured books on BC Booktalk called, Night of the Howling Dogs, by Graham Salisbury.

1. Jessica, can you tell a little about yourself and your years at Chisago Lakes Middle School? What were your interests?

When I was in middle school, to put it bluntly, I was a very shy nerd. I loved school and my classes, but it was a rare occasion when I would speak during class discussions. I played clarinet in the band for my three years there. During 7th and 8th grade, I participated in math league and math counts, and in 8th grade I played softball and basketball. Outside of school, my favorite activity was reading and trying to learn as much as possible. At that point in my life, U.S. history really fascinated me, and after September 11th occurred, current events grabbed my attention as well. Prior to that tragic incident, as Mrs. Guanzini would put it, I “lived in a cave.”

2. Where did you go to college and how did you choose what you wanted to major in?

I went to the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, MN. Before going there, I was uncertain in what I wanted to major in – I think I changed my major about three times before classes even started. However, I knew that I enjoyed math and I did not want to lose the math skills I acquired in high school. The only thing keeping me away from a math major was a programming class – which really frightened me since I had not knowledge of the subject. Eventually, I registered for the programming course because I didn’t know what else to take, and it was on the math major course schema. This was a good choice because after beginning the course, I found it to be enjoyable, and it caused me to double major in math and computer science. Recently, I left St. Scholastica to attend the University of Colorado where I am focusing on applied mathematics.

3. How did you get involved in the research behind detecting seismic tsunamis? What is the goal of your work?

I first got started in doing research relating to tsunami detection during the summer of 2008, while I was at the University of Minnesota on an internship. My advisor asked me to try to speed up my research team’s current tsunami simulation using the graphics card of a computer. A tsunami simulation is a computer program displays where a tsunami will go and how large it will take to arrive at shore. As we recently witnessed in the Samoa Islands, it has been difficult to create an efficient tsunami warning system that adequately warns those in the path of a tsunami of its coming. You may see the following video that was captured by an FBI surveillance camera in the Samoa Islands as proof that they did not receive much warning:

Go to the following URL:

Therefore, since we cannot predict when a tsunami will occur, after its formation, we want to minimize the amount of time it takes to estimate where and when it will arrive at shore.

4. Why is your work in detecting seismic tsunamis important? What are some of the challenges you and your colleagues face?

This work is important because currently an efficient tsunami warning system is not in place. Looking at the recent past, we see that one of the most deadly tsunamis in history occurred on December 26, 2004 in Sumatra (see figure 1). Yet, we are living in an age in which we have quite sophisticated technology, still we are unable to determine in a timely fashion when a tsunami will arrive on shore. It is not that this problem has been overlooked, but rather the problem is so complex that it takes a lot of computational power. This means it could take hours to compute the track of a tsunami through the ocean, at which point it may be too late. Therefore, it is vital that the amount of time it takes to run the codes is decreased in order that another disaster, like the Sumatra tsunami of 2004, does not happen again, in order that other people’s lives may be spared. The question then becomes not how to forecast how a tsunami propagates (travels through the ocean), but rather how to speed up the simulations.

Figure 1: Historically Deadly Tsunamis

The challenge lies in solving the wave equations, since a tsunami is a wave. In its most basic form, this is a very common type of problem. However, the challenge soon escalates once we realize that the boundaries (shorelines and sea floor) of the ocean are quite complex. They are jagged and constantly changing, but is vital to determining the propagation of a tsunami. Moreover, there are different forms of the wave equation, some of which are easier to solve than others. For example, solving the linear wave equations does not take as much computational power as solving the non-linear equations. Yet, the results of the non-linear equations are more accurate than the linear ones. Additionally, we can add more details to the problem, these details are known as parameters and they help to make the wave model more realistic, but they also contribute the difficulty of the problem and increases the computational time it takes to solve the problem. Therefore, an accurate model may take considerably longer than a less accurate model – so we need to find a balance between accurate results and computational time.

5. Where do you see your work with this area taking you in the future?

I want to get my Ph.D. in applied math, with a focus on a numerical scheme called radial basis functions (RBFs). Whether I end up applying RBFs to tsunamis or something else, I am unsure at the moment. However, I think that I would like to develop a fast and accurate algorithm using RBFs for the solution of the wave equation and figure out how it can be implemented along the rugged coastline in order to give accurate results. Currently, I am looking at detecting tsunamis in the upper layer of the atmosphere known as the ionosphere. This is because as a tsunami is propagating in the open ocean, it displaces a small amount of water, perhaps just a few centimeters. However, this wave is greatly magnified in the ionosphere, and has a distinct look, which can be picked up by GPS satellites. This method could then be another way to detect a tsunami.

6. As far as you know, were the earthquakes that led to the tsunamis that recently hit Indonesia and Samoa detected before reaching the islands? Was there any warning?

There was some sort of warning because I remember reading on a news website an article about how a large earthquake had occurred and the islands in the Pacific were told to be on alert. However, whether it was issued for all countries that could possibly have been hit or those actually affected, I am uncertain. I know Hawaii was told to watch out for it, and they breathed a sigh of relief when it missed them, but I do not know whether the countries affected by the tsunami were given any advanced notice. Moreover, many times, the places affected are remote villages on the coastline, and it is difficult to relay information to them. What usually happens after a significant earthquake occurs is that a message is relayed to coastal countries that may or may not be affected by a potential tsunami. Many times these warnings turn out to be false, as a tsunami was not generated. The question then becomes, is it better to issue a false warning or no warning at all? I think everyone would rather be safe than sorry.

7. What advice would you give to CLMS students that are interested in Math/Science or careers involving Math/Science?

Join math league! Honestly, that activity gave me some of my fondest middle school memories. It is a no pressure environment, and you get FREE COOKIES before each meet! I believe that you have many other opportunities available to you as well such as robot club (???-Mr. Schoeneck, I think you know what group I’m trying to reference here), quiz bowl, etc. – so join those activities in order to facilitate your learning. More than anything, become involved in the different activities offered. Then, as your schooling progresses, take as many math and science classes as possible. Not only does it allow you to see what you like/dislike, it also gives you a better understanding of each subject since sooner or later they all become intertwined. Also, working in groups is a great skill to have – rarely is work completed by a single person anymore, but rather a group of collaborators.

8. Do you have any other advice or comments to pass on to our 6th graders?

My #1 advice for you is to HAVE FUN! Enjoy life. Look for the good in everything you do – but be aware that it may take a few years until you see it. Do not be afraid to ask questions - your teachers are there to foster your learning, and there is NO such thing as a dumb question. Also, try to cut back your time watching television – it is much more fun to live your own life than to watch others live theirs. Finally, if you have not already done so, read and/or watch “The Last Lecture” by Dr. Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon Univ. If I say anything else, I would just be mimicking him….he gives the best advice – my favorite being “You just have to decide if you’re a Tigger or you’re an Eeyore!” Well, enjoy your time at CLMS – it goes by much too quickly and I wish you all the best of luck for the remaining of the school year!


Thanks Jessica. We wish you well and hope for tremendous progress in the work towards detecting Tsunamis.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Night of the Howling Dogs by Graham Salisbury

Chorus: The Shadow nears when foreshadowing appears.

It's 3:30 in the morning. Dylan and the rest of his scout troup are already up for their big day. The troop is getting ready for their camping trip to the southern most part of the 50 states. Their destination is Halape Beach, at the base of a volcano located on the southern tip of the big island of Hawaii. They are planning to pitch their tents in a grove of trees that sit below a 1000 ft. cliff right next to the ocean. Because of its remote location and the difficult trail that leads to it, the boys and their adult leaders will probably have the beach all to themselves. The trail is steep and treacherous. One false step could result in injury or something worse. So, Dylan and the others have to keep their eyes focused down to avoid stumbling, but out the corner of his eye Dylan spots some wild dogs in the distance. One of the dogs appears to have a white coat of fur. No one else sees them. No one else believes him. Dylan knows what he saw was real.

Mr. Bellows is Dylan's scout leader. As part of Dylan's ladder of requirements to be an Eagle Scout, Mr. Bellows assigns him a turn as the troop's Senior Patrol Officer on this particular scouting trip, even though he isn't the oldest. One of the older boys named Louie, calls Dylan "Senior Patrol Loser" instead. To Dylan it seems like Louie wants to settle an old score. Dylan wishes Mr. Bellows had never invited Louie. Louie was nothing but trouble, in his mind. Sure, Louie could do some things like tie knots, but Dylan thought even an ape could tie an knot. Dylan considers Louie like he were a big dumb ape of a bully, or was it that Dylan was really being oversensitive and looking for ways to get back at Louie?

Chorus: The Shadow nears when foreshadowing appears

That night one of the other adult leaders is asked to tell a scary story. He chooses an ancient Hawaiian legend involving a god that takes the form of a white dog. According to the legend the god who takes a white dog's shape and form has power over spiritual and physical forces on the Hawaiian Islands. Later that night, Dylan wakes up in his sleeping bag. He feels something moving on his face. His face is crawling with roaches. What drove them out of their cracks and hiding places to seek protection in Dylan's sleeping bag? As he shakes them off he suddenly hears howling. The dogs are back. The white dog makes another appearance.

Chorus: The Shadow nears when foreshadowing appears

When an author gives clues that something is going to happen later in the story, in this case something bad that is going to happen, this technique is known as foreshadowing. What clues does the author give? What's going to happen?

The ground begins to shake. There's an earthquake. Mr. Bellows calms everyone down and reassures them that it wasn't big, maybe a 2.5 or 3.0 tops. But, Mr. Bellow's face cannot hide the concern on his face about what might follow.

The book says that the howling stopped, and then the world fell apart.

"Way out on the horizon a flash of unworldly light lit the ocean, like some silent scream from the deep emptiness beyond."

One of the boys witnesses an EQL (Earthquake Light)-the mysterious flash of light that sometimes appears when there is an earthquake. Even today, Scientists can't quite yet explain why this phenomena happens.

In addition to the appearance of the white dog, the earthquake also foreshadowed something bad that was about to happen. The events that follow in, Night of the Howling Dogs, remind me of something that recently happened in the Samoa Islands or the events that happened in the Indian Ocean 5 years ago that killed over 200,000 people. The events that follow are actually based on a true story that happened in Hawaii on November 29, 1975, on the very spot the story says the boys were camping.

Dylan will observe first hand what being a leader really means. He will witness what it means to reach deep inside to find the will to survive. And, he will reflect on how terrible circumstances can reveal how outstanding character can rise up in the most unlikeliest of sources.

Did all the boys and their adult leaders survive? Will Dylan make it? If you like adventure, stories of survival, I would recommend, Night of the Howling Dogs, by Graham Salisbury.

Take a look at photos from the 1975 tsunami and Boy Scout Troop 77:

Friday, October 2, 2009

Max Quigley by James Roy

Max Quigley: Technically Not a Bully by James Roy

Max Quigley, by James Roy, has the look and feel of a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book. Max Quigley is actually a foreign import. I'm definitely not against foreign imports when it comes to books, but be careful, you may catch yourself talking a little Australian before you're done reading.

You might slip into a, "G'day Mate!," instead of saying good morning or good day. Instead of saying "cafeteria," you might ask your teacher for permission to go early to the "canteen." What would happen if you called someone in the hallway, "lovey?" And, what would happen if you said "mum" instead of mom when you got home tonight? Would she think you deserve one across your "bum?"

There are always repercussions when you try to be different, even in the way you speak. When you speak differently than anyone else you can't help but stand out. And, you know what happens when you stand out in middle school. You get noticed. How horrible! Hopefully, you won't get noticed or recognized by a ....bully.

Everyone knows what happened to Taylor Swift, right? Taylor Swift was about to be recognized for Best Female Video at an awards show and then what happens? That bully Kanye West climbs up the stage, takes over the microphone, and announces Beyonce should have won.

Just a few weeks before this incident Taylor Swift made an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show. It was a show featuring exceptionally talented children and young adults. Oprah asked Taylor to give some of her younger fans some suggestions for success. What she said surprised me a little. She said:

"I think that the most important thing is to be different enough where you stand out. The only place that being like everybody else is cool is junior high."

In my opinion what she meant by being "different enough where you stand out" means letting the world see your differences, your uniqueness, the things that make you stand out in the crowd. Think of American Idol. Don't the judges like Simon Cowell constantly say to the contestants that they need to have their own unique and distinctive style? Unfortunately, some students in the middle school world don't always value, support, and accept differences in their classmates.

In the book, Max Quigley, Max is having trouble appreciating differences in one of his classmates. He is amazed by how much Triffen Nordstrom stands out. Triffen Nordstrom can't help but stand out in the crowd no matter how hard he tries not to. Max constantly calls him Nerdstrom. Max compulsively picks on Nerdstrom as his favorite target. Max's most recent accomplishment involved shoving Nerdstrom out an emergency door that locked from the inside while on their field trip. Besides torturing Nerdstrom, Max likes to draw, and he especially likes to draw pictures of Nerdstrom. Take a look at the example on p.29. (The picture of one of Max's teachers trying to hopelessly cope with the copy machine that doesn't work on p. 84 is one of my favorites.)

I think this book is unique in the way it is told from the bully's perspective. This twist definitely adds to the humor found throughout the book. In the beginning of the book you can't help but shake your head when Max cannot grasp the fact that he is a bully. You can tell he's obviously going through denial. Just listen to these words from pp. 23-24:

"[T]echnically I'm not actually a bully. Bullies wait behind lunch sheds and steal kids' Twinkies. I've never stolen anything in my life. Bullies beat people up. I've never actually punched anyone in my entire life....The other things bullies do is hurt people. And I don't mean just a flick on the ear or a punch to the leg. I mean hurt people, hurt them until they cry or have to go to the hospital. And as far as I know I've never caused anyone to get taken to the hospital....I've never even made Nerdstom cry, and he's about the cryingest-looking person I've ever seen....Like I said before, most of the things that have happened to Nerdstrom when I've been around have either been completely his own fault or just jokes that have gone a little bit wrong."

Can you hear the denial? How many clues does Max give that reveal he could be a bully yet not realize it?

If you like school stories and books about friendships I would recommend, Max Quigley: Technically Not a Bully, by James Roy. It's a book that covers a serious subject in a humorous way that helps us all think a little bit more about ourselves and how we accept others.

Nikola Tesla by Michael Burgan

Nikola Tesla: Physicist, Inventor, Electrical Engineer by Michael Burgan

Does anyone recognize this car? [picture below] The Tesla Roadster is probably the world's best engineered electric powered car. It can go from 0 - 60mph in 3.9 seconds. In can go 244 miles without recharging. And, you only need $101,500 dollars to drive it off the lot.

Why is it called the Tesla?

The reason may in part have to do with a story about Nikola Tesla and an electric car he supposedly invented in 1931. According to legend Nikola Tesla modified a Pierce-Arrow automobile and replaced the gas powered engine with an AC electric motor. The motor was said to have consisted of a box that contained 12 radio tubes connected to a 6 foot antenna. This means, if you believe the story, that the engine received, or was charged by, a source of electricity by wireless transmission. Then the story usually goes on with the claim that Tesla's electric car could reach speeds of 90mph.

This story isn't based on the truth, but it illustrates the fact that many people have been pulled into a fascination about the man named Nikola Tesla. Sometimes he is called the forgotten wizard. Unfortunately, stories like these have also repelled many others from considering Nikola Tesla's actual accomplishments. The myths, lies, and legends about Nikola Tesla have even made him out to be some kind of extraterrestrial being that walked among us on the earth. Misconceptions and misunderstandings about a incredibly gifted and talented person have probably contributed to the reasons why Nikola Tesla is not considered a household name such as the famous inventor Thomas Edison.

Nikola Tesla actually worked for Thomas Edison. Surprising to the image I ascribe to him, Edison played a cruel joke on Tesla. Edison told Tesla that he would pay him $50,000 dollars if Tesla could help him with his DC electric power generators. When Tesla finished the work, Edison basically replied that he was just kidding about the money-couldn't Tesla take a joke?

What could a poor unknown immigrant to the United States like Tesla do? Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, a man considered like a god of technology in the United States, had the money, the power, the support, and the reputation to do whatever he wished. Tesla decided the only thing he could do was to leave Edison and strike out on his own. They eventually became rivals instead of friends.

Have you heard of AC DC? Tesla's incredible work with AC electric power generation would gradually get more attention than Edison's ideas with DC electric power generation. It was a battle between AC vs. DC power. AC power won. AC current can travel farther than DC current can and this is the system that we use today.

However, as Edison's fame grew as our country's best roll-up-your-sleeves, 1%-percent-inspiration-99%-perspiration, inventor, Tesla's reputation grew more mysterious, like one who was a magician or wizard, not as one who was as gifted and important as Thomas Edison. What Tesla demonstrated did indeed seem like magic to people. One of Tesla's many projects involved work on the wireless transmission of electricity. He would occasionally put on performances showing off his incredible knowledge and command with electric current. For example, he would put on shoes with a special sole made out of cork. He then would take a specially designed light bulb and place it into his left hand. Without any wires attached to the light bulb, he would then take his right hand and touch a piece of equipment that was sending out electric current. The bulb lit up, as did the applause that came from the crowd that witnessed the spectacle. As the onlookers gasped they may have asked: How did the light turn on? Why didn't Tesla get hurt?

Did it help Tesla's image by taking so many publicity photos of himself sitting casually in the midst of a Frankenstein-like lab with bolts of electricity zapping across the room? The photos were obvious fakes, double exposures.

Would you have taken him seriously?

It's too bad that so much mystery overshadows Nikola Tesla, the man who is sometimes called the Master of Electricity. Tesla was truely a man before his time.

Due to him we have the electrical system that supplies power to our homes.

Did you know most of our history textbooks got it wrong about who really invented the radio. (1943 the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Tesla, not Marconi, invented the radio.)

Did you know he had an idea for a death-ray that he thought could stop wars, and he even invented an earthquake machine.

Did you know one of his inventions probably gives him the last laugh over Edison, if Tesla was alive today. (Guess who invented the fluorescent light bulb? Maybe the joke is ironically on Edison after all.)

Remember the Tesla Roadster? No, the story can't be true. He couldn't have invented the electric car in 1931. That's impossible.

Find out more about the amazing and mysterious Nikola Tesla in Michael Burgan's book, Nikola Tesla: Physicist, Inventor, Electrical Engineer.

Explore more:

Explore the PBS site on Tesla: Master of Lightning

Do an online search for movie clips that continue the fascination with the myths, legends, and incredible achievements of Nikola Tesla.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker

There aren’t many people in the world that can call themselves forensic anthropologists. Most of us are familiar with the word forensics from TV shows like CSI Miami. CSI agents gather evidence from a crime scene and use science to solve mysteries that lead to arrests. A forensic anthropologist uses his or her knowledge of the human skeleton to solve mysteries involving skeletal remains that have partially decomposed or have been rendered unrecognizable to the untrained eye. Forensic anthropologists often assist with solving crimes that involve human remains, but they are also invaluable to archaeological excavations.

One such archaeological excavation has been taking place in Jamestown, Virginia. Jamestown is known as the first permanent English Settlement in what we call the United States today. Jamestown was established in 1607, but until recently, the original site of the James Fort was believed to have washed away because of the James River. The Jamestown Rediscovery Project hit pay-dirt in the 1990s when they found evidence of the original fort, remains of houses, and the graves of many of the early settlers to Jamestown.

Many of the graves rediscovered contained mysteries for forensic anthropologists to solve. They were mysteries only the skeletons of those who were buried could answer. Questions such as: Who were these early settlers? What was life like for them at Jamestown? And, how did they die?

A highly unusual grave discovered was found to be the skeleton of male teenager.

Forensic anthropologists carefully uncovered possible evidence suggesting how the teenaged boy died.

The trauma of an arrow hitting the boy in leg in the area of his femur may have been the incident that brought on his death. On further investigation, forensic scientists believe this may have been a blessing. The young man was probably living a life in agony before he was shot. Forensic anthropologists took a look at his teeth and determined that he had been suffering from an infection that started from a broken abscessed tooth and then the infection had spread. Without modern dentistry and medicines, a fairly routine problem today was fatal back then in 1607.

Using the techniques of facial reconstruction this may resemble what the boy looked like before he died.

For more information about the Jamestown Rediscovery Project go to:

Virtual Jamestown

For a fiction connection, take a look at Blood on the River by Elisa Carbone

Check out other popular titles by Sally M. Walker such as:

Secret Subway by Martin W. Sandler

Do you know what a pneumatic tube is? Banks use them. Hospitals use them. Mechanics use them too. [show air compressor and tools] Pneumatics is a type of technology that uses pressurized air or gas to make something move.

There was an inventor named Alfred Beach who took the idea of a pneumatic tube to a much grander scale. Alfred Beach thought a pneumatic tube could be used to transport people underground. Beach successfully demonstrated that he could transport mail from one building to another using the force of air pressure to propel a large cylinder through a tube. This gave him an idea. To solve the incredible traffic-jams of New York City, Beach thought he could solve New York City’s traffic jams by constructing a tube large enough to fit a subway car under the city’s streets. There was only one thing stopping him-a man named William Marcy Tweed.

Most people called him Boss. Boss Tweed was the most powerful person in New York City in the late 1800’s. Anything important that happened in New York City had to go through him first. “He was about six feet tall and, for most of his adult life, weighed over 320 pounds. He had a large bald head and sported a red beard. What struck most people on first meeting him were his bright blue eyes, which seemed to twinkle when he found something amusing. But when he was angry these same eyes turned to cold steel, as they did on the occasion when he actually stared down a person holding a knife to his huge stomach, causing the man to drop the weapon and flee.” There were more than a few that wanted to see Boss Tweed dead and out of the way.

Alfred Beach was also determined to find some way to take Tweed out of the picture. Beach was upset that Boss Tweed stood in the way of his dream. Beach couldn’t just simply ignore the power of Boss Tweed either. Tweed was the leader of a group of corrupt politicians known as Tammany Hall. They rigged elections, accepted bribes, and stole money from public projects. They were like their own little mafia organization.

In contrast, Alfred Beach was a man of honesty and integrity. He wouldn’t use violence or bribery to get his way. His principles wouldn’t allow him to play by the same rules Tweed used. But, Beach was faced with the reality of how things worked in New York City in the late 1800s. If he wanted to build his dream, his subway, he would have to pay Boss Tweed a large amount of money on the side to get permission to start construction.

To Beach he only had one alternative. He decided to build the subway in secret with his own money. The Secret Subway, known to Beach as the Beach Pneumatic Transit, went ahead without Tweed’s permission.

Beach and his men began the project like soldiers digging an escape tunnel in a prison camp. It would take coordination and stealth. Beach’s men would have to be sworn to secrecy. Thousands of tons of dirt would have to be removed and hauled out without anyone noticing. The noise itself would have to be muffled so as not to tip off someone walking a few feet above on the streets of downtown Manhattan.

You'll have to read the Secret Subway by Martin W. Sandler to find out if Boss Tweed eventually discovered what Beach was up to and what happened to the dream of having pneumatic subways instead of the types of subway systems we have today.

Monday, September 14, 2009

101 Things You Need to Know (and some you don't!)

I know what you're thinking. You see a book called, 101 Things You Need to Know, and what happens? Your survival instinct sets in. Your skin gets clammy. Tiny beads of sweat start to form. The memory of a waiting room flashes into your consciousness. A voice deep inside you speaks, "Quick, run while you can." You swear it looks just like a book that would be sitting at your dentist's office before having a tooth pulled. You sense this is a book you don't want to get to know. But wait, before your brain leaves the room, here are a few reasons why you just might want to take a closer look:

Reason #1 - It's Disgusting!

Did you know a cockroach can live a week without its head? If you’re lucky enough to catch one, try chopping its head off and watch it continue to live for a few days afterwards. What passes for a brain in a cockroach isn’t centered in the head but is spread out through its whole body. Cockroaches don’t breath through their mouths. They have tiny holes throughout their body that they can use to breath in oxygen. Cutting off the head doesn’t cause them to bleed uncontrollably because they do not have blood pressure the way we do. (So why do these almost indestructible creatures finally die after about a week?)

Reason #2 - Miracle Mike

Chickens have been known to run around for a few moments after their heads are cut off. However, the world record was 18 months set by a chicken named Miracle Mike. (How did Miracle Mike survive that long?)

Reason #3 - I dare you.

How about this one? Did you know that just about everyone sneezes with their eyes closed? Some people believe that if you sneeze with your eyes open that your eyes will pop out. (Is this true? - There's only one way to find out.) Closing the eyes when sneezing is a reflex, but it is still a mystery why this reflex happens.

Reason #4 - Because it's funny when it's someone else.

There are many reports about people that can’t stop hiccupping. Some people have been known to hiccup non-stop for years. What is your favorite cure for the hiccups? Try one of the cures mentioned in the book such as: Thinking about pineapples, make yourself sneeze, pull your tongue, or eat sugar. Keep this in mind-none of these cures worked for Charles Osborne. Osborne unfortunately hiccupped for 68 years without stopping from 1922 to 1990.

Example #5 - Separate yourselves from those of lesser intelligence.

Finally, here’s one that maybe worth knowing. There may be an explanation why we have to deal with numbers that are based on a system of 12 instead of 10. (Which is easier?) We have 12 inches in a foot, 24 hour day, 60 seconds in an minute, etc.. The ancient Babylonians (where Iraq is today) used a system of counting with their fingers. They noticed that they had a built-in hand held calculator. Take your thumb and use it to count the three sections each of our fingers divide into. You should get 12. A long time ago the French tried to divide time into sections of 10, but the idea never caught on.

Okay, the Miracle Mike example may have gone too far, but don't write this book off so easily. Have a talk with your brain, stay in the room, and turn a page or two. (How many of you did I lose when I mentioned the word dentist?)

Friday, September 11, 2009

If the Witness Lied by Caroline B. Cooney

She was supposed to be the leader. Now guilt rules her world. She thought she could run away from the pain, but she can't break the dark hold a memory has on her mind.

As a girl named Madison sits in a parked car outside a shopping mall, she stares down a memory through a curved glass window. The family inside the mall really doesn't belong to her, but she needs to pretend. While she sits, Madison looks out the window and notices a familiar vehicle parked nearby. One look at it makes her shudder. It looks exactly like the one she remembers. So desperate to know, she walks up to it and opens the door just to be sure. To Madison's relief, it isn't the same vehicle, but she is disturbed by one significant detail. She squeezes the parking brake slowly. It takes more force to disengage than she expects. Does anyone else know about this?

Madison thought she could escape the pain of a broken home by finding a new family. She was the oldest. She was supposed to be the leader, not the one to run away. Can she get past the guilt that blinds? Will she reveal a clue that could save her own family, her real family?

Then there’s Madison's sister, Smithy. She also left home. Somehow she had the wherewithal to enroll herself into a private boarding school for girls. Like forgotten papers in a desk, Smithy filed away the memories of her hometown, her best friends, and the members of her own family. It was almost like she pretended amnesia. What made her want to start a brand new life with no trace of her real family to explain?

Then there is Jack, the only one with enough courage to stay home. Someone besides his aunt had to keep an eye on little brother. Jack had his own sacrifices to make and secrets to keep. He quit the football team, and then stashed something in the attic above the garage. He would do whatever was necessary to protect his brother.

Tristan, the youngest, is only a little boy. Tristen’s third birthday is fast approaching and he loves playing with anything that has buttons. Who could ever be afraid of a three-year-old like him? You might if you knew that most people in town consider Tristan the reason for his parents’ deaths. According to a witness, Tristan released the parking brake in the family Jeep that rolled over his father's body.

All the evidence points to one little boy. But, what if the witness lied? Find out who the real killer is in Caroline Cooney's intriguing mystery, If the Witness Lied.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

You will find below a book talk from last year that will introduce you to the book, Hunger Games, if you are not familiar with it already. Hunger games is book one in a new trilogy written by Suzanne Collins. The second book, Catching Fire, was just released a few days ago.

[Recommended for 8th grade and up]

Hunger Games is about a society in the future, but the story is based on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, and somewhat on the Roman gladiator games. In Greek myth, King Minos of Crete punished the City of Athens for killing his son by requiring a tribute (a sign of submission and form of punishment) of seven teenage boys and seven teenage girls to be thrown into the Labyrinth to fight for their lives against the Minotaur (a beast that was half man and half bull).

In the Hunger Games, the government of Panem has recovered from a type of civil war, but has decided to keep the twelve conquered rebel regions in submission by requiring a tribute from each of them as a sign of submission and as a continual form of punishment for defying the central government. Each district has to send a teenage boy and a girl to the annual Hunger Games. The Games are like a reality style game show, but much worse. The people in the capitol prepare as much fanfare for this event as might a country hosting an Olympic games. More technology and advanced media coverage are devoted to the Hunger Games than any other event. Every single household watches the two-three week event day and night. Those in the Capitol watch simply for the Game’s entertainment value and some even get emotional as they remember where they were, what they did, and how they felt in remembering specific details about the games when it’s all over. But, the residents in most of the twelve districts watch in pure horror, as eventually they see one and then both of their teenage representatives cut down in the flower of their youth. Only one district will win and will be showered with food and privileges. That’s right, only one winner is allowed, only one survivor.

No one ever bets on District 12. There hasn’t been a winner from this district in 30 years. Before the games, every young person in a district has to appear for Reaping Day. Reaping Day is like a lottery. Two names will be picked, one girl, one boy. The name chosen from the girls’ lot is Primrose Everdeen. A wisp of frailty begins to ascend the podium. The crowd sorrowfully mutters because it’s just plain wrong that one so young and weak, a twelve-year-old, is allowed to be chosen. The murmuring continues until a different girl speaks up and says, “I volunteer as tribute.” The Hunger Games Rules do allow this, to allow someone to volunteer to take another’s place. In some districts this happens because they think they have someone that can win. In District Twelve, the Reaping Day lottery is regarded much differently. To them it’s like winning a ticket to the next life.

The voice that spoke up wasn’t thinking about winning. She was thinking of saving her younger sister. Primrose’s sister, Katniss, took the podium, took her sister’s place in the Hunger Games.

A boy named Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son is chosen as the other tribute from District 12. There’s no applause for either Katniss or Peeta, only silence. The silence of the crowd isn’t directed at them, however. The silence is the only way for the crowd to show its protest to the government. Then the unexpected happens. When Katniss stepped up to take her sister’s place the crowd takes notice and shows how they admired her decision. “At first one, then another, then almost every member of the crowd touches the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and holds it out to [Katniss]. It is an old and rarely used gesture of [their] district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love.

Could you survive on your own, in an outdoor arena, with 23 other tributes out to make sure you don’t live to see another day with thousands of cameras watching and listening to your every move?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Chasing Lincoln's Killer by James L. Swanson

The first reaction that comes to my mind after reading this book is how unusual it felt to read for a non-fiction book. This is a non-fiction book that reads very much like a fiction work. Also, unlike many non-fiction books written for middle school readers, this author doesn't come across as talking down to what he/she thinks is necessary for middle level readers to understand the information presented.

Chasing Lincoln's Killer is the story about what happened to John Wilkes Booth and his accomplices after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

John Wilkes Booth didn't do it for fame, although he wasn't against having more fame.

John Wilkes Booth wasn't hired for money, as if a hit man.

And, John Wilkes Booth was far from being mentally unstable.

He was wealthy and famous already. Think of your favorite famous movie star of today. Movie stars are usually quite wealthy and consider how the public treats them. Actors in the 1800's like John Wilkes Booth were comparable to today's movie stars. Booth was even more recognisable because he was from a famous acting family, like maybe the Baldwin brothers of today

As mentioned already, he wasn't mentally crazy. His assassination plan was coldly calculated for a specific purpose. By the night of the assasination, Robert E. Lee had already signed the Confederacy's surrender and the Civil War's end was being celebrated through the streets of Washington D.C. It was probably the first night in many months and maybe even years that President Lincoln could be said to have been truly happy during his presidency.

John Wilkes Booth wasn't celebrating. He wasn't yet convinced that fighting the Civil War was a Lost Cause. He believed that if he could kill President Lincoln that this would rowse the South back into battle against the North.

"At some point that afternoon, Booth made the final arrangements. There were two types of preparation: practical and mental. First, the weapons. Booth chose as his primary weapon a .44 caliber, single-shot, mussle-loading pistol manufactured by Henry Deringer of Philadelphia. It was a small, short-barreled, pocket-size handgun designed for concealment, not combat. It's big .44 caliber ball, weighing in at nearly an ounce, was a solid, deadly round. Unlike military pistols that could fire up to six rounds before reloading, the Deringer could be fired just once. Booth knew his first shot would be his last."

As many of you know, during the performance of a play held at Ford's Theatre that President Lincoln attended that night, Booth quietly entered through a door into the President's box, wedged a board against the door to prevent anyone behind him from entering, aimed the pistol, and fired into the back of President Lincoln's skull.
Booth jumped from the box onto the stage, turned to the audience, and took the time to stand straight up and speak to the audience-he knew this would be his last appearance on an American stage. With all eyes on him he "thrust his bloody dagger victoriously into the air," and shouted, "The South is avenged!"

Did you catch the part about the bloody dagger? When Booth jumped onstage he wasn't holding a gun, but a gun was what he used to kill President Lincoln. Why was Booth holding the dagger instead of the gun, and whose blood was on it?

I'm sure you're wondering why no one stopped Booth before he escaped the theatre? One of the stage hands, who was not one of the conspirators, even helped Booth with his gettaway horse?

And looking at the following picture showing the shrouds Booth's accomplices had to wear in prison, you will see no mention of John Wilkes Booth. He never wore a shroud and wasn't hung with his fellow conspirators. How come?

Finding answers to these questions and to experience the thrilling story of how federal soldiers hunted down John Wilkes Booth makes this book an easy recommendation for me to make.

Sadly, and ironically, just a few days before Lincoln was shot, he had signed an important paper that might have saved his life if it had been signed earlier. Just before that fateful night, Lincoln established the agency called the Secret Service. There hadn't been time to put the agency and agents into effect yet.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Mailbox by Audrey Shafer

There were rumors about Arthur “Boo” Radley. Stories about why he went to jail and to why he never came out of his house except at night. One day, Scout, Jem, and Dill all decided to try and get Boo Radley to show himself. They wanted to see him. Boo wouldn’t come out, but he left different objects in the notch of a tree for the three kids to find. Before the kids could give Boo a thank you note, the notch in the tree was cemented over. It seemed that someone didn’t want them to meet Mr. Boo Radley.

The story that involves Boo Radley is from one of my favorite books when I was in 7th grade (Do you know the title?). Harper Lee’s character named Boo Radley kept coming to mind as I read another book that also has a major character that no one gets to see.

In, The Mailbox, by Audrey Shafer, Twelve-year-old Gable Culligan Pace has lived with his uncle Vernon in his simple home cradled within a valley west of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, north of Roanoke County. We find that Gable, or Gabe, has lived with his uncle for nearly two years. Before that, Gabe was shuffled between many different foster homes ever since he was two years old- when his mother disappeared. Gabe never knew his father. Social services tried to find Gabe’s only living relative, his uncle Vernon, but he wasn’t an easy man to find.

Uncle Vernon might as well have been a ghost to his neighbors. He lived a life of a recluse, away from civilization as much as he could. In some ways the mailbox by the dirt road was the only connection Uncle Vernon had with the outside world.

You might think that Uncle Vernon is the one that reminds me of Boo Radley, but he can’t be. He’s dead.

After his first day of school, Gabe discovers Uncle Vernon laying “motionless on the floor, flat on his back.” “Gabe stood by his uncle’s work boots and softly called his name. Vernon, a veteran, had had his left leg amputated below the knee during his final tour in Vietnam, thirty-five years before. Gabe saw that the fake foot wasn’t angled quite right to the rest of his uncle’s body.” Uncle Vernon’s skin was cold to the touch.

You can imagine the terror, fear and anguish Gabe experienced in that moment. Yet, he didn’t call for help. Gabe spent hours crying and wondering what to do. That night Gabe kind of half dozed with his head buried into the kitchen table. When it turned daylight he noticed a fly on his uncle’s cheek and “Gabe’s eyes widened in terror as the fly walked into his uncle’s nostril. Gabe wanted to scream…” Somehow Gabe collected himself and covered his uncle with a blanket, grabbed his backpack and closed the door as he “headed off to his second day of sixth grade.”

When Gabe returned home from school he hesitated by the mailbox, probably wondering what in the world he was going to do and if he could even go through the front door again. Then Gabe did something unexpected. He opened the mailbox. Uncle Vernon was the only one that was allowed to open the mailbox. Inside was a green envelope addressed to Mr. G. C. P. Inside was a note that said:

“I have a secret.”

“Don’t be afraid.”

Gabe was even more afraid. There wasn’t anyone around to help him. So, he stepped into the house and put down his backpack, turned on every light. “His uncle’s body, leg prosthesis and all, was gone.”

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Roar by Emma Clayton

Before I start, take another look at the cover. You'll notice two kids looking at a wall with giant guns at the top. Is the wall keeping them in, or something else out?

In the Roar, by Emma Clayton, Mika is having difficulty distinguishing between what is real from what he is dreaming. Mika's parents think he has a sleep disorder and definitely a sleepwalking issue (p.85). They think Mika's restless nights reveal that he is still trying to deal with the disappearance of his sister Ellie. Ellie has been missing so long that his parents and the police are convinced she’s dead, but to Mika there is a sense of awareness that Ellie is still alive, a sense that comes from an invisible bond, which is hard to describe, but only that bond a twin sibling can possess.

One of the reasons for Mika's sleep disorder is a reoccurring nightmare disturbing his sleep. The dream involves an image of a heartless man with only a TV for a head. Listen/read the dream carefully and see if you know what it means.

“Lurking in the shadows of a place where dark walls seemed to press in all around was a man in a black suit with a television for a head. It was an in-between moment, a moment in which nothing much happened, and yet it was horrible. The man’s face flickered in black-and-white on the curved glass screen and his eyes gazed blankly out of it as if he were feeling nothing, as if he had no soul. He just stood there in the darkness crushing a bird in his hand that was struggling feebly to get away.” (p.285)

Mika's story is set in the future and his earth is in bad shape. The human population is in jeopardy. Extreme flooding, animal and plant species nearly wiped out, and a type of plague or virus infecting the remaining animals that cause them to attack humans are just a few of the challenges facing life on earth. Mika and most of the others that have survived live behind a protective barrier wall to scratch out their meager existence. Except for a few privileged people that can live a life of luxury in the golden turrets, life has been difficult.

Besides what happened to the animals, something else is terribly wrong. For decades there haven't been any human children born, that is until Mika's generation. Mika's generation is like a generation of miracle babies. They are all about 12-13 years old when the story begins. At the beginning of the school year a strange request is made by all of their teachers. All students age 12-13 must drink some kind of fitness drink as part of their daily school routine. All families with 12-13 year-olds are then told that the drink will make the children better, stronger and smarter.

Remember Mika's nightmare? The heartless man with a TV for a head? He is real. He doesn't really have a TV for a head, but the man is not exactly alive the way you and I are. The best I can say to you is he really does have living tissue. He is a person in the flesh and blood, but whether or not he has a soul is another matter. Mika does need to feel worried about him. The man who caused his sister's disappearance is the same man who would like nothing more than to crush Mika like a bird in his hand.

There is one secret I'll share. The man without a soul is afraid of Mika, but he's counting on Mika never finding out why until it's too late. As long as he can make Mika afraid of him, that is all that matters.

Why does the man with no soul want Mika to be afraid of him? What does Mika possess that scares the heartless man? Does the man with no soul have any information about Mika’s sister Ellie? And finally, why does Mika and the rest of the kids age 12-13 have to take a fitness drink every day? What's in it? What could the drink possibly be for?

If you like wild rides and future technology terrors, I would like to recommend, The Roar, by Emma Clayton.

(As I hinted, there are some technology terrors in this book. How would you like it if your parents could determine if you were lying to them simply by waving a scanner over your brain? That should scare a few of you. If you are a science fiction fan you'll probably like some of the technology mentioned in the book. However, there doesn’t seem to be much completely new science fiction anymore. What was science fiction a few years ago scientists are already doing today. Some of the technology we have today already freaks me out. Scientists today can put you into a type of MRI scanner and look at your brain activation patterns and identify what you are thinking. They can tell if you are lying and if you have been someplace by showing a video of the place and detecting the recognition patterns in your brain. Take a look at the CBS story on 60 Minutes about how technology can be used to read our minds.)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson

(Persistant images haunted my mind as I read this adventure story. My imagination borrowed continually from an article I looked at way back from the Sept. 2006 issue of National Geographic. Pictures from a cave exploration expedition helped me visualize some of the conditions the main character encounters in this book.)

In some ways Thomas Hammond is lucky. He has been able to grow-up next to a mountain called Leepike Ridge. A river runs right by his house. He has a world of fishing and exploring right below his window, as long as he doesn't get hurt climbing down. His home is unique in that it sits chained on top of a slab of rock. Imagine climbing dozens of nearly vertical stairs to knock on his door. Thomas probably felt he lived on top of the world. He didn't mind the climb but the delivery men with the new refrigerator weren't too happy at the sight of those stairs.

In some other significant ways Tom Hammond is not quite so fortunate. His dad died awhile back and he doesn't appreciate his mom's new boyfriend, especially after he proposes marriage to her. Trying not to throw-up at the thought of her marrying this guy, Tom attempts to work through his anger and takes a walk by himself along the river in the middle of the night. He comes across the foam packing that the refrigerator was packed in and uses it as a float. He lays down on it and pushes off into the water while he mulls over the day's dark events. The ride is comforting and peaceful as the slow moving current gently carries him along. His thoughts quiet down and his attention drifts to the stars in the sky above. He wonders about the fact that there are just as many stars beneath him as are above him... before he slips into a deep slumber.

Asleep, Thomas floats down the river, past the bend marking his farthest exploration. He floats all the way to Nestor's place, where the river dives into the side of the mountain like water being sucked into an intake for a hydroelectric dam. When he realizes what is happening, it's too late. Tom's suddenly on a ride for his life. After Leepike Ridge swallows him he's immediately shot down into subterranean channels, rapids and waterfalls. The terrific force of water he battles finally ejects him into a large pool within a totally dark cavern. Despite severe bleeding from a head wound, Tom survives, still clutching the piece of foam. He gradually washes up on some gravel, unconscious.

When he wakes up he doesn't recognize the putrid stench emanating from something laying next him. A corpse a few days old lays there welcoming Tom to his new home.

Soon, the town newspaper reports: "Mountain Rivers Claim Another Victim!" Apparently Thomas was seen being pulled down by the river current into the side of the mountain that night. Who reported the information?

How were these witnesses, who may have been trespassing on Nestor's land, come to be at this exact same place exactly at the moment in time Tom disappeared into Leepike Ridge?

Did these witnesses do all they could to rescue Thomas?

Even after many discouraging days with no news of Tom's whereabouts, his mom doesn't believe he's dead, but what evidence can she cling to? What reason could she possibly point to for hope?

If you like survival stories with a twist of mystery thrown in, then you'll enjoy Leepike Ridge, by N.D. Wilson.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

All about Sleep from A to Zzzz by Elaine Scott

This story came out of London England in 2005: "Girl who woke up on a crane." On Saturday, June 25, 2005 a fifteen-year-old girl was discovered asleep on a concrete counter-weight on a narrow metal beam on top of a 130ft. crane. The firemen didn't immediately want to wake her. How come? Carefully, they put a safety harness around her and used the girl's cell phone to inform her parents where they found her. The firemen later discovered why she had climbed the crane. She didn't climb the crane to hurt herself. She didn't climb the crane to protest something. She didn't climb it to paint a graffetti message. When the rescue team contacted her parents they learned that she was a frequent sleepwalker! Experts from a London sleep center remarked that this was an unusual case, but they weren't surprised. The sleep experts had come across sleep walkers in the past who have driven cars, ridden horses and even attempted to fly helicopters.

Contrary to what most people think, sleepwalking doesn't occur when a person dreams. Sleepwalking occurs in a non-dreaming sleep state. Sleepwalkers usually have their eyes open. Sleepwalking doesn't indicate a severe psychological problem and usually occurs most frequently in children between 5-12 years old, but can continue beyond the middle school years.

What do you think would have happened if the firemen had immediately tried to wake the girl? What do you think should be done with a person found sleepwalking? (Don't wake them, gently steer them back to bed.)

This story and many others are found in the book, All about Sleep from A to Zzzz, by Elaine Scott. It's a quick fun read about things most of us don't realize about sleep.

Do you have any sleepwalking stories?

I'm sure some of you have experienced a hypnic jerk. This happens when your body jerks as you are about to fall asleep. By the way this is our body's reaction to protect itself. Our body confuses the sensation of falling asleep with the sensation of actually falling down(p.24).

I found the most fascinating section of the book to be about sleep paralysis. At a certain stage of sleep our bodies actually freeze or lock up. This is a good thing because this is when we are actively dreaming. Imagine what would happen if you started acting out some of your dreams!

Finally, you'd probably be surprised to find out that 15 minutes of extra sleep everynight can improve your grades in school. A study done in Minnesota showed that A students sleep 15 minutes more than B students. B students sleep 11 more minutes than C students. C students sleep 10 more minutes than D students.

There's a lot more I'd like to share with you about how sleep deprivation is used as torture, the meanings behind dreams, and my own theories about how sleep paralysis might explain why some people think they have been abducted by aliens.

(Take a look at Nova's Science Now story on sleep.)
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