Reluctant Readers: “The Bully Book”

The Bully Book by Eric Kahn Gale  bully book

Up until 6th grade, Eric has always been a sort of regular kid. He has a crush on his best girl/friend, Melody. Since fourth grade when they connected over a class project, Eric has been hanging out with Donovan, an overweight guy with braces.

But something strange happens on the first day of grade six. Donovan comes into the class looking like a new person. He’s lost about 25 pounds, has no braces and his hair is cut short. And, he pretends not to know Eric.

Instead, Donovan is hanging with Jason Crazinski and Adrian Noble, who have suddenly decided to bully Eric and to get the rest of the class to do so as well. With their teacher always absent on Mondays, they make up vocabulary sentences with Eric’s name in them–all derogatory–and the whole class joins in. The sub doesn’t notice.

Things get crude and gross with incidents in the boys’ restroom at the urinal. And worse.

What happened over the summer that led to this change? The bullies got ahold of “The Bully Book,” a secret document that has been passed down through the years, a manual for selecting a “Grunt” and then ruining his life.

Grunts don’t fight back; they are easy targets. And while Eric never tells any adults what is happening to him, he does try to figure out what the Bully Book is, who has it, and how he can stop being the Grunt.
High school housekeeping: I wanted to a read a suspenseful book for students who are working on their reading skills. The Bully Book is a good choice. The chapters alternate between text from the Bully Book and passages from Eric’s journal. The Bully Book explains how and why the bullies torment the Grunt. And then the  reader sees specifically how the plans from the Bully Book affect Eric. He becomes a loner, someone who is mentally, emotionally, and physically abused. The Bully Book book has a 620 Lexile level, so it’s about 5th-grade reading level. But the topic of selecting a classmate for everyone to pick on and seeing how that person falls apart is one that resonates with older readers. I’d recommend The Bully Book to students who are working on their reading skills.

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Nonfiction: “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal”

gulp  Gulp by Mary Roach

Mary Roach has come up with another fun look at science, this time focusing on the anatomy and physiology of human digestion. Here she answers the questions you’ve always wanted to ask:

  • Can snakes taste?
  • Can your stomach digest itself (and why doesn’t it do that)?
  • Why do humans (or at least Americans) throw away the most nutritious parts of the animal (brains, intestines, etc.)?
  • Why are we so squeamish about what goes in our mouths?
  • Why are we horrified by saliva once it’s out of the mouth? (For example, you wouldn’t spit in your soup and then eat it, but you will put the soup into your spitty mouth and swallow it.)
  • Could Jonah really have survived in the belly of the whale?
  • Can you eat so much that you blow up?

There are lots of fun facts about animals’ eating habits:

  • At one time, cat food was evaluated by human tasters (this didn’t take off).
  • Dry pet food came about because canned food was needed for war rations.
  • Dogs like the smell of decomposing flesh if it isn’t too old.
  • Cats and dogs really like just a few favors–we just think they like to eat like us, so pet food makers are trying to please us (vegetarian kibble for true carnivores is an example).
  • Animals with no taste receptors, such as whales, swallow a lot of junk (cups, toothpaste tubes, etc.)

And fun facts about people:

  • With soldiers consuming about a pound of meat a day during WW II, meat at home had to be rationed–so the government tried to get Americans to eat organs and reproductive parts (very nutritious).
  • For the adults–you shouldn’t equate complexity with quality when you pick a beer. (A professional alcohol taster says that after hard work, the person who wants a refreshing beer should go for a  Bud, not an IPA.)
  • In microwavable food, the sauce makes the favor which disappears from the chicken
  • You should eat slowly if you’re trying to lose weight–but not too slowly or you’ll be in big trouble.
  • At one time, doctors used saliva for cures for syphilis and more. ( You can read about its effectiveness.)

On the opposite end of the alimentary canal, Roach can make even topics that disgust us pretty interesting. There’s a lot about poop here, and intriguing facts about the rectum.

  • How do those prisoners manage to smuggle drugs and cellphones into lock-up without pooping them out? Inquiring minds want to know and Roach gives us the answers.
  • Did you know that red meat will make your farts and poop stink more than other foods? (Unless those other foods are unrefrigerated and decomposing.)
  • The future of fecal bacteria transplants–there may be a very cheap way to get rid of intestinal disorders.
  • The terrible way Elvis Presley really died had more to do with constipation than a drug overdose.

More than junk food and not a load of crap, Gulp has the science and the history that will delight you beyond a mere gut reaction and keep you reading to the end.

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Nonfiction: “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife”

Spook by Mary Roach spook

I’m gathering some scary stories for a fall display, and thought I’d add Spook–which is not a scary book at all, but rather an entertaining work of nonfiction that takes a look at life after death.

Mary Roach, the author of Spook, wants to know if we can scientifically prove or disprove the existence of life after death. She wants to know if there really is a human soul. She begins her investigation (or at least her narrative about it) in India. Roach accompanies an investigator who is hoping to verify the reincarnation of a man, born into a child who lives not far from where the man had lived his life. This journey is pretty disappointing, and what she learns supports Roach’s initial feelings–she’s a skeptic.

In fact, proving or disproving the existence of the human soul has frustrated great philosophers, theologians, and scientists all. So the reader shouldn’t expect great revelation here. But what makes the book a worthwhile read is learning about some of the crazy history–and present day shenanigans–of folks who claim to be in touch with the dead.

How hardily many people accepted mediums a century ago is surprising. Folks believed in the presence of the dead during seances when tables levitated and trumpets played by themselves. Weirder still is how ‘ectoplasm’ would often appear around the medium during a seance. How did this filmy tissue of phantomness–that looks a lot like cheesecloth–get in the room? (OK, the answer is creepier than actually dealing with the dead. Can you say orifice?)

As always, Roach has fun in her investigations. She goes to medium school (really just a weekend workshop) and tries to learn the craft along with a cohort of believers.

Roach also turns to science, past and present. At one time, a serious surgeon studied whether the soul had left the body by weighing patients at death and seeing if there was a change.

Today, there are a few serious scientific institutes that study the paranormal. They use computers, infrasound and electromagnetic waves to try to locate the souls among us. They investigate those out-of-body experiences that people have during surgery when their hearts stop.

High school housekeeping: Spook roams all over the place, but in a good way. California teens will remember the Donner party from their youthful studies of California history, and will be engaged by the author’s efforts to reach the spirits of those departed cannibals. Mary Roach has written several books about her investigations into questions that have always puzzled her. She’s always funny while she’s informative. Her footnotes, which can really stray from the subject at hand, are sometimes the most fun of all. A book that goes over well in book talks is Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. It, too, is an interesting read for fall as our thoughts turn to the dead (and the undead).

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Held by Edeet Ravel  Held

Chloe Mills is living every high school student’s dream. She’s in Greece with her best friend in a summer volunteer program. She and Angie rarely argue, but after a disagreement with Angie, Chloe decides to do some sightseeing by herself. She’s grabbed, thrown in a van, blindfolded, and drugged. Later, she’s taken on a plane. Yes, she’s been kidnapped and has no idea what country she is now in.

Chloe’s fear is both rational and irrational–to avoid a spoiler, I’ll just say that she sometimes has reason to be very afraid and that she suffers, but–weirdly–she is also treated much better than she could have imagined by one of her captors. He visits her with some regularity, is a good cook, and is concerned about her well being. She begins to idolize him, reading much into each thing that he does. She’s suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, a state of mind in which a hostage comes to identify with his or her captor and may even believe that s/he is in love with that captor.

We (and Chloe) learn very early in the novel that she is being held in an effort to have prisoners released. She’s in this for the long haul, and is never sure what fate awaits her–death, torture, release?

High school housekeeping: Held is a quick, easy read, but in a short narrative space, it creates a very detailed and complex look at Stockholm Syndrome. Not only can you see how Chloe would start to think about her captor as her love interest; as you learn more and more about her captor’s life, you, too, wonder if he’s such a bad guy. And you feel very weird about this as you read, asking yourself, “Am I being fooled, too?” The addition of Facebook posts, news articles, and a “Free Chloe” website at the end of chapters help the reader understand how friends and Chole’s mom are dealing while they have no idea what is happening to her.

As this is an easy read (middle school reading level, but with high school students as its intended audience), I recommend it for struggling readers. But it’s a quick, fun summer read for others as well, worth the afternoon it will take you to become absorbed in Chloe’s story.

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New Adult Nonfiction–Challenge Yourself!

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Challenge yourself to read some serious nonfiction.

Try some books that argue against what you believe.

Find out who is behind innovations, medical discoveries, and other significant change.

Learn, baby, learn.

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“The Bully” and “The Gun”

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The Bully by Paul Langan

Darrell Mercer moves from Philadelphia, PA to California in the middle of his freshman year of high school. Although his neighborhood in Philly is not the best–even dangerous sometimes–he has a lot of good neighbors and friends. He doesn’t know anyone in California, but a new job opportunity for his mom makes the move necessary.

Before Darrell’s first day at Bluford High, things go wrong. A guy named Tyray bullies him and extorts money simply because Darrell has walked up to him and tried to make conversation. Darrell is not very tall and is thin. Tyray is big and muscular.

Darrell also meets a nice girl named Amberlynn, but he notices on his first day at school that she is very popular and doesn’t seem to recognize him. He sits alone in the cafeteria and wishes he could go back to Philadelphia.

Things go from bad to worse. Every week, Tyray takes all of Darrell’s money, threatening that he will beat Darrell if he doesn’t give the money to him. Darrell also notices that his young cousin beats on the cousin’s even younger brother just because he can.

What can Darrell do when he is threatened daily and his life is a nightmare? When he sees a flyer posted at school, he thinks he may have an answer, if only he has the courage to see it through.

High school housekeeping: The Bully is part of the Bluford High series and is meant for students working to improve their reading skills. The Lexile level is 700, so about the 5th grade reading level. It’s a fast-moving, action-filled read. You’ll be sickened by some of the terrible bullying that Darrell goes through, but it is realistic. It is interesting that the author makes a connection between what is happening to Darrell and what is happening to his young cousin. If you are working on your reading skills, give it a try.

The Gun by Paul Langan (later published as Payback)

Tyray Hobbs is a bully who humiliates weaker kids, extorts their lunch money, and generally sees himself as the master of his personal universe.

Funny how things can change in a day.

One of Tyray’s favorite targets is Darrell Mercer. Darrell is one of the newer kids at Bluford High–Darrell comes from Philadelphia to California as a freshman in high school. Although Tyray has bullied him for awhile (see The Bully above), Darrell has joined the wrestling team and has started to stand up to Tyray.

Seeing Darrell in the cafeteria, Tyray decides to hassle him for not giving Tyray his weekly payment. But things don’t go as planned.

So now everyone has seen that Tyray has a weak spot. The schoolwide fear of Tyray is disappearing fast. Other students make fun of him. Everyone disrespects him, and he needs to get respect back in the only way he understands it–by bringing back the fear.

And how can Tyray get that fear back into the students of Bluford High? With a gun.

High school housekeeping: The Gun is part of the Bluford High series and is meant for students working to improve their reading skills. It is also titled Payback in a newer edition. The Lexile level is 730, so about the 5th grade reading level. It’s a fast-moving, action-filled read with a white knuckler (suspenseful) ending! I couldn’t put it down. While The Gun can stand on its own, I recommend that you read The Bully first–this is a sequel, and it’s fun to know the whole story.

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“Go Set a Watchman”

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee   Go Set a Watchman

With the flap over Harper Lee’s new book still simmering among readers I know, I have to admit that I’m surprised at how virulently both professional reviewers and ordinary lovers of To Kill a Mockingbird hated the fact that Go Set a Watchman finally made it into print.

Sure, it’s not the example of craftsmanship that To Kill a Mockingbird is. But then, in the last few months it’s been well established that it was an early draft of that novel, one that is set some eighteen years after those hot summer days of the Great Depression when Atticus stood up against his friends and relations in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama to defend an African American man against rape charges.

Like many people of my generation, I was worried about reading the story of a lesser Atticus. A few years ago, during the years-long fiftieth anniversary celebration of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, I was in the independent bookstore Bookshop Santa Cruz and saw a bumper sticker for sale: “What would Atticus do?” That this is practically blasphemy in the comparison of Atticus to Jesus didn’t matter. I loved it and bought multiple copies, distributing it to some of my favorite English teacher buddies.

So I found it ironic that in Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise Finch asks the very question “What would Atticus do?” The answer is not what Jean Louise had hoped he would–and not what all the folks with images of Gregory Peck standing in the courthouse, worn out from Tom Robinson’s defense, had hoped for either. (If you are over forty, Gregory Peck is so melded in your mind with Atticus Finch that you can’t even pretend they are different people.)

So what if Harper Collins manufactured a fake literary event? People are free to respond as they see fit. There was no order that readers rush to get the book at midnight of its publication date. Take away the ‘New Harper Lee Book Discovered!’ nonsense, and I’m glad that Go Set a Watchman was published. It’s a great example of how a pretty decent book becomes a great book in the hands of a great editor.

The best parts of Go Set A Watchman are not those that are causing controversy, but rather Jean Louise’s reminiscences of her girlhood (as ‘Scout,’ of course) and the author’s beautiful evocation of small town Southern life in Maycomb. It is easy to see an editor reading the manuscript and pointing out these passages to Lee. “Here’s your story. Write it.” Anyone who is a writer–whose secret desire is to become a published author–would do well to read both books and note how completely the story changes. That so much work went into a manuscript that the author had considered fully realized may give the struggling writer the faith to press on, to discover the heart of her story and start again.

For junior high and high school students, reading Go Set a Watchman just before reading To Kill a Mockingbird would provide an excellent opportunity to understand why their teachers require several drafts of important papers and why they are taught to peer edit one another’s work. Besides the clear superiority of the sections of Go Set a Watchman that deal with Scout’s childhood, there is a lesson in the mess that Jean Louise tries to sort out about her father’s views of race and segregation. Lee turns rather long speeches about ideology into dialogue, a mistake that writing teachers refer to as ‘info dumps.’

The info dumps containing views on the NAACP and whether the South is ready in the 1950’s  to be fully integrated are now historical arguments–and Jean Louise’s father, aunt, and uncle all land on the wrong side of history. These ideological issues are the trigger that forces Jean Louise to see her father as a man and not some sort of infallible god. We readers of To Kill a Mockingbird, like Jean Louise, are unhappy to be disillusioned with Atticus. Too bad. A break with a parent’s conscience and the formation of one’s own is a necessary ritual of coming into adulthood. It, too, is an important lesson for teens to derive from the books they read. For those of us adults who want too much to cling to an idea of Atticus as the father we all wish we had guiding us through life–well, it’s never too late to realize that our conscience and our actions are in our own hands.

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