Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Book Review: Railsea by China Mieville

Railsea by China Mieville

I picked this up upon the advice of one of my favorite local children's librarians, and boy, was she right!  This is another fabulous book!  I can't believe I've had two home run books in a row (the other being The Lions of Little Rock).

So while I had to write this review, I need to start off with a warning that this is not really a middle schoolers book.  It is classified as a YA novel, but I don't think adults picking it up would think it was "youth" literature rather than adult literature.  Apparently it is more accessible than some of the other books that he is written, but I've never read any of his works before, so I can't comment on that.

It is very hard to describe Railsea, but if I had to sum it up, to me it was kind of a steampunk fairy tale, with some religious and political overtones.  Mieville himself likes to call his work "weird fiction," and is part of a group of contemporary writers known as the New Weird who explain their literature as "a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy."

So, basically, his stuff is fantasy, but much more Blade Runner than Lord of the Rings (in fact, Mieville has said that his goal is to move fantasy away from the influence of Tolkien).  And yet....this book was largely inspired by the great 19th century novel of American Romanticism, Moby Dick, with secondary influences contributed by adventure tales such as Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe.

In short, this is not your typical YA teenage angst/dystopian future/love triangle/vampire-werewolf-alien-monster fest.

In this book, Mieville has transported the obsessive quest for a beastly foe from the seas to the rails.  Instead of large ships sailing across vast oceans in which unknown dangers lurk, in Mieville's world the denuded plains are traversed with dozens or hundreds of looping, intersecting, and extensive tracks of unknown origin upon which the inhabitants make a living on a variety of different trains--electric, diesel, clockwork, or even wind-powered.  No one steps foot outside the trains, however, because the land is filled with massive subterranean killers--burrowing monsters such as the carniverous antlion, the vicious blood rabbit, or the largest predator of them all, the moldywarpe.  The landscape is cluttered with the wrecks and detritus of those who came to ruin on the ever-aging rails.

Thus, in Railsea, Mieville has created an incredibly interesting and unique world (complete with drawing that he did himself of the various underground hunters of the people above).  Then he borrows plot devices from some of the greatest novels of the past, weaving a tale filled with action and unexpected twists and turns.  However, as in Melville's original, the action is interspersed with literary reflections, both on the characters and stories themselves, but also on the moral or political questions that the story is raising.

It is this, in particular, that makes this a story for older teens.  Mieville uses various literary devices, such as asides and reflections by an unknown narrator, invented words and uses of language, and extensive usage of the ampersand, which is also a symbol for the rails themselves, which makes the book not a straight-forward read.  It takes a bit to get into his style, his words, his world.  It is well worth it, but I think the reader needs to be at a minimum of a high school reading level not to get frustrated or lost among Mieville's literary inclusions.

So it may be a few years before your middle schooler will be ready for this book.  But it is a book I can highly recommend for you!  I could see this book being a great book to read in class after the traditional Moby Dick version; the two taken together would probably enhance understanding of each work.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Book Review: The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

As most of our organized academic activities wind down for the school year, other things start up for the summer.  One of our favorite and most important projects for the summer is the beginning of my son's Mock Newbery Book Club for the current year.

The point of the Mock Newbery Book Club is to read as many of this year's eligible young adolescent books (geared for ages 9-14) as possible in order for the group to pick the book they believe should be awarded the Newbery medal for outstanding writing in January 2013.  It is a great activity for voracious readers like my son, because it encourages them not only to read more widely than their own interests might lead them, but also to practice assessing, analyzing, and discussing this year's books with their friends.

While parents are not involved in club, other than chauffeuring the students to the library, which hosts the book club, I try to read as many of the more promising books as I can, although I probably only get to about 20% of all the books my son reads for the club.  Still, I've really enjoyed reading the current books for this age group.

The group had its first organizing meeting a week ago, and my son brought home his first batch of books to read, including The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine.  I picked it up and started to read it, and found I couldn't put it down.  I just finished it last night, and I couldn't believe what a good book it was!  The experience reminded me of last year, where the first books I read for the 2012 Newbery award was Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt, which ended up being my favorite book of the year  (read my review here).

So I loved this book, which is set in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1958, the year after the famous Little Rock Nine integrated the schools under the protection of the National Guard.  The protagonist is a girl named Marlee, whose shyness and social anxieties have rendered her virtually speechless outside of her family.  But things for Marlee when a new girl, Liz, comes to school.  Liz befriends Marlee and works with her to overcome her fears about speaking in front of others.  But just as Marlee is prepared to take a breakthrough step, Liz drops out of school amidst rumors that she was actually a "colored" girl passing as white.  Marlee is confused, angry, and perplexed.  But she refuses to take this sudden disappearance of her first true friend lying down.  And Marlee's investigation of this situation leads her to a whole new level of understanding of herself, her family, her peers in school, her community, and the entire political situation in which she is living.

I found this to be a wonderful and nuanced presentation of the conflicts and concerns of that era that can be understood by the intended age range, but also appreciated by an adult like me.  One reason I think it really works is because Marlee's journey is personal, not political, so the story never gets polemic or strident, and the characters aren't all-good versus all-bad.  It is a well done, highly layered story, so as Marlee digs deeper and deeper not only into understanding the racial issues, but also becoming more aware of the complexities that drive the people in her life, she leads us to a better feel for how good people could allow something as wrong as racial prejudice to rule their lives for so long.  And yet, Marlee and the other young people in the book feel real, not merely mouthpieces for the author's opinions.

In the afterword, author Kristin Levine said she traveled to Little Rock for research on her intended project to write a historical fiction book about the Little Rock Nine.  Once there, however, she found that people wanted to talk about the year after that--the year that the first the government shut down the public high school system, rather than allow integration to continue, and that the community started, for the first time, to fight back.

As Albert Einstein said, "The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing."  Levine chose not to retread the important, but oft-told story of the nine courageous students who integrated the school, but instead to focus on what made the community stop looking on and doing nothing.  Which makes this book a valuable lesson to our children not just about how these moral dilemmas were worked out in the past, but about what they will undoubtedly be called upon to deal with at some point in their future.

So, all in all, what a doozy of a first book to read for this year's Newbery list!  Obviously, I highly recommend it, and it is at the number one spot for my personal list of Newbery 2013 contenders.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How to Raise Children Who Will Change the World

Is the American Educational System Obsolete?  Yes, answers Tony Wagner, the Education Fellow at Harvard University's Technology and Innovation Center.  Prior to that, Wagner had spent over 10 years at  Harvard's School of Education analyzing the changes that need to happen in education in order to prepare students for the 21st century global economy.

In his new book, Creating Innovators:  The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World,  Wagner studies American innovators and discovers some common patterns in their childhood and education--patterns that, alas, are discouraged by most traditional schools.  Wagner puts forth a case for a radical transformation of the fundamental principles of education, with the emphasis on the following five principles:

1.  Focus on Collaboration and Teamwork, rather than Individual Competition and Achievement
All the most important ideas and issues are just too big for only one person to handle

2.  Take a Cross Disciplinary and Multiple Perspectives Approach
This is kind of the curricular corellary to the point above.  Wagner points out that the Carnegie-unit-based high school structure is now 125 years old and is outdated for today's realities.

3.  Take Risks
Innovation, by its nature, requires experimentation, which means that most time, you are going to fail and/or be wrong.  That is anathama to way traditional school curricula approach most things.

4.  Learning Should be Active, Not Passive
Wagner argues that our current educational systems make students into learning consumers, not learning creators.  How are they suddenly going to turn into creating exciting new ideas and projects if they've been trained to sit back and be spoon fed everything during their education?

5.  Learning Should be Based on Instrinsic Rewards and Passions
Traditional schools are built around motivating students through extrinsic rewards--grades, gold stars, praise from happy teachers and parents, etc.  But innovators are driven by their internal passions, ideas, and motivations.

You can learn more by viewing this TED-style talk by Wagner:

or by reading a recent Forbes article: Creating Innovators:  Why America's Education System is Obsolete;

or, of course, by ordering his book.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

To All You Heroes Out There

Today is Mother's Day, our annual observation for all those people who are mothers or who act in a mothering capacity for the young people in our lives (including, I'm assuming, most of the people who read this blog).  Being a mother is a joy and a privilege, a challenge and a constant calling up of all of our wisdom and patience and all of other other best qualities.  For most of us, it is the toughest job we will ever do--but there is nothing more important, and ultimately, more satisfying (at least, on the good days) in our lives.

It is the job of love.  It is the work of heroes.

So for all you heroes out there, I share this song by Jamie O'Neal to remind you how important you truly are:

I honor your contributions, and hope you have a wonderful day!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Turning Coral Conservation into Child's Play

I haven't posted in over a week, which I think is the longest I've ever gone since I've started this blog without posting.  I wish I could say it was due to Screen Free Week and my virtuous decision to eschew all things electronic, but it wasn't.  It is because I've been so busy with the Cards, Coral & Kids campaign for my son's environmental awareness group, Healing Oceans Together (H2O).

The idea behind this project, which is to create a Pokemon-like card game that would teach people about coral reef life and ecosystems and actions they can take to help the corals survive, is explained here and here, so I won't go into that again in my blog.  What I wanted to talk about here is some of the thinking behind the project.

You know, young teens are interesting creatures.  They are old enough to realize some of the problems with the world, and most are hopeful and confident about being part of the solution.  They tend to be really into Earth Day and recycling, Save the Planet, Stop Global Warming, Protect the Rain Forests, and the like.

And yet, on a daily basis, we are still telling them "Shut the Refridgerator Door!"  "Turn Off the Lights when You Leave the Room!"  "Don't Leave the Computer Running All Night!" or the frustrated but perhaps dangerous question of "Why Does it Take You 30 Minutes of Running Water to Take a Shower?"

Maybe it's different at your house.  But for many of us, our children's grand rhetoric for saving the planet doesn't match up with their everyday life habits.  Of course, that's really true for most of us adults as well...

In H2O, the students have been studying ocean science and math since September.  We decided to hone in on coral conservation because coral reefs are really the marine equivalent of rain forests.  Although coral reefs only make up about 0.1% of the oceans, they are home to approximately 25% of all marine life!  Also, corals take a long time to grow, so our damage to reefs that may be hundreds or thousands of years old can not be replaced within many of our human generations.

But what to do that would make a difference?  There are already tons of books and videos and ads and educational resources on this issue, but people continue doing what they've always done.  As parents, we've trying nagging, threatening, bribing, begging, and everything short of bloodshed, and yet...we, too, are largely ineffectual.  So we needed to come up with something else, something new.

And then we had a brainstorm.  Instead of using guilt and threats and dire warnings of environmental catastrophes, what if we made saving the coral reefs fun?  What if we made it....into a game?

In approaching it this way, we were influenced by the work of Jane McGonigal, whose work is summarized in a video I included in an earlier post.  Her video on that page, a TED talk on how "Gaming Can Make a Better World," is a synopsis of her wonderful book, Reality Is Broken:  Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.  In short, she argues that time people spend on video games actually helps them develop positive characteristics (such as working hard, cooperation, and optomism), and explores how to structure games so that we can channel all the time people spend playing games into social activism games that will help solve Earth's real-world problems.  It is a fascinating and inspiring book, and I recommend it highly.

So, in short, that is what we are trying to do with this game.  First, the game will teach students (and adults as well) the real science behind food chains and interlocking ecosystems in the coral reefs.  We think this is important because we think if people knew more about all these fascinating creatures, they would love them, and we take care of the things we love (for more of our philosophy on that, read the Family Educators Commons article that Maria Droujkova and I co-wrote on the Shareable website).  But secondly, we will build into the games a way for them to earn (or lose) points based on their actions in real life.  You insist that I drive you to the library?  You lose 5 points.  You walk or ride your bike there yourself?  You gain 5 points.  You stand there with the refridgerator open as you drink your water/milk/juice?  You lose 3 points.  You close the door and drink it at the table?  Well, I don't know that we'll give you points for that, since that should be normal behavior, but at least you won't lose points.  You keep your showers under 10 minutes?  You get 2 points.  You keep your showers under 5 minutes?  You get 5 points.

You get the idea.

Anyway, we think this game has the potential to give kids incentives for to change those behaviors that we parents have been nagging them about for years, but to no avail.  If we all make those small changes, maybe they won't completely solve the problem, but they will make things better.  And making things better is something that can make us all feel good.

If you would like to be a part of helping to make this game happen, then please visit our Cards, Coral & Kids campaign.  For a small donation, you could get a deck of the cards before they are released to the public, participate in our pilot trials and research project, or even give input into the cards themselves!  Also, please spread the word about this idea to all your social media networks, email loops, and friends and family.  Getting the funding we need to develop the game requires reaching lots of people, so anything you can do to help is greatly appreciated!