Book talks for readers at Chisago Lakes Middle School.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

My family usually gets upset with me every December. They love to watch the same holiday movies year after year: “Elf,” “Home Alone,” “Christmas Vacation,” “White Christmas,” “Miracle on 34th Street” and so on. They tell me I hate to watch movies. I just don’t like watching movies more than once. Of course I end up watching them anyway, and occasionally I’ll even observe something I’ve never noticed the first 20 times.

I don't like to admit it, but I don't like to read the same book more than once either. I’m not proud of this, but it’s true. I’m not proud of it because I want to be like some of the best readers in our school. The ones that like to read the same book more than once. In my opinion, they know one of secrets to becoming a really good reader.

Well, it doesn’t happen often, but I have a new book to place on my to-read-again pile. This book is also my favorite of 2011. It's called, Okay for Now, by Gary Schmidt.

This book has an unforgettable character by the name of Doug Swieteck. You may remember him from the book, The Wednesday Wars. In The Wednesday Wars Doug created a list of 410 ways to get a teacher to hate you. In, Okay for Now, Doug doesn’t even have to try in order to get people to dislike him. After his family moves to Marysville, NY, Doug immediately makes a bad first impression on almost everyone. Even neighborhood dogs too lazy to bark know he doesn’t belong.

It didn’t help that Doug was the only new 8th grader to show up at open house night. It also didn’t help that Principal Peattie always talked in the third person. Principal Peattie would say things like: “Tell Principal Peattie your name.” or “Principal Peattie is sure we’ll get along fine.” or “Look at Principle Peattie in the eye [when he is talking to you].” After listening to Principal Peattie go through the school bathroom rules someone else decided to talk in third person. Like a knee jerk, Doug blurted out:

“Doug Swieteck has a question…suppose Doug Swieteck has to go to the bathroom more than three times?”

Principle Peattie set his [copy of the rules] down on the desk in front of him.

‘Then Doug Swieteck would need to see the nurse,” said Principal Peattie.

“How’s that going to help?” Doug said.

Every kid in the classroom laughed. Every one.

Principal Peattie did not laugh.

Word spreads fast in a small town. Word spreads even faster in a junior high school. Doug was a marked man. Even the girl that Doug started to like called him a “skinny thug."

You’d think the public library would be the one place in Marysville that Doug would be treated okay, but even the librarian casts a suspicious glance at him, like he doesn't belong. But, as he walked up the staircase to the second floor the librarian might have witnessed Doug making the greatest discovery of his life. At the top of the staircase was a glass box with a huge book with pages longer than a baseball bat. Inside only one page plate was being displayed- the image of a bird called the Arctic Tern. Doug thinks this is the most terrifying painting he has ever seen, and the most beautiful.

As he leaned closer, the glass fogged up and immediately something inside of Doug took over. He held his hand as if he had a pencil in it. Then his hand automatically traced the image of the bird on the glass, but saving for last, the round and terrifying eye.

The moment Doug looked at the Arctic Tern his life transformed. What happened may never change how other people look at him, but this moment will change the way Doug sees himself. Doug Swieteck discovered something he could do better than most. And, in a way, this was the first book he could really read and never get tired of.

What happened to Doug? Why is he so fixated on an image of a bird behind a glass case? Why does he think the eye is so terrifying? And, why was this one of the few books that Doug can read better than most? These are just a few of the many questions you will want answers to about a character named Doug Swieteck.

If you like unforgettable characters, if you are not afraid of a book that might make you want to read it again, and if you like stories that have a little more staying power, then Okay for Now, by Gary Schmidt, is the book for you.

(Teachers, if you are looking for a vehicle to teach inferences, this would be a great book for you too.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Here Lies Linc by Delia Ray

You may need a lot of imagination for this, but back when I was a 6th grader, my social studies teacher had us go on a field trip to a cemetery. She took us to Kinkaid Cemetery, the one named after Alexander Kinkaid and the person the town of Alexandria, MN, happens to be named after. The field trip was part of our Minnesota history unit, and if I remember right, the assignment was to take some chalk and paper so we could rub an etching of the year of the oldest gravestone we could find.

If we had taken our assignment more seriously we probably would have noticed some of the symbols chiseled on the gravestones and monuments as well. It’s not uncommon to see symbolism on gravestones, but if you’re like me, you probably have never really thought about what the symbols mean. Here are a few examples: [show pics]

Thistle – sorrow, or the crown of thorns


Upside Down Torch-a life extinguished

Wreath – victory over death

Sunflower- devotion

In this week's book, a boy named Linc, which is short for Lincoln, has ridden his bike in the local cemetery for years and has often noticed the symbols carved on the gravestones. He frequents this place so often because his house is right next door to Oakland Cemetery located in Iowa City, IA. Although he acts like the cemetery is his backyard, Linc has always shied away from one monument in particular: the monument known as the Black Angel.

Oakland Cemetery is an actual place in Iowa City, and the Black Angel can be found there. On the night of Halloween, kids will go to the cemetery and dare each other to kiss her. According to local legend you might be struck dead if you do. Who knows what would happen if you kissed her on the night of a full moon.

Well, Linc is worried he might just find out. His teacher, Mr. Oliver, has assigned the Adopt-A-Grave Project in 7th grade history. Each student has to do an etching of a gravestone of their choice and investigate the history of the person who is buried there. Maybe to prove something to himself, or someone else, Linc chooses the Black Angel. [gather around the Black Angel]

(Thanks Mrs. Lange for making the Black Angel!)

The Black Angel wasn’t always black. The bronze memorial gradually darkened over time, maybe as a result of a curse placed upon it. One of the stories about the curse involved three college students. Not only did they kiss the Black Angel, they even sawed off three of her fingers. (Did they happen to play their prank on the night of a full moon?) As the story goes, each of them later experienced a horrible accident. One lost a hand at a sawmill he was working at that year. Another had a stroke on his 21st birthday and was left with a paralyzed arm. The third one thought he got away unscathed but on the day of his graduation he happened to nick his hand with a pocketknife. The cut got infected. When the doctors at the university couldn’t stop the infection gangrene set in. The only solution was to amputate. Did you notice a pattern?

As Linc studies the information about the deceased family on the angel memorial the mystery only deepens when he notices what appears to be an inscription written below in another language. In order to read it better Linc pours some flour over it. As he blows the excess flour away a strange text is revealed:

STRASTTEBE OCEKAVA (“Suffering awaits you.”)

Is it a warning, or is this the curse of the Black Angel?

Linc also notices that there is no date of death for one of the people on the memorial. It says that Theresa Feldvert was born in 1836 but there is no date of death. What happened to her? Where was she buried if not in Oakland Cemetery?

The more Linc finds out the more he begins to worry. Does suffering await only those who damage the monument? Or, was the message meant for anyone who dared to dig too deeply into the mystery of Theresa Feldvert? Wasn't the story of the Black Angel just meant to keep kids out of the cemetery, or is the curse for real? If it is what could happen to Linc?

If you like books about graveyards, if you like a good mystery, then check out Here Lies Linc, by Delia Ray.
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