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Review: “The Rights of the Reader” by Daniel Pennac

October 19, 2010

The Rights of the Reader Cover

I have been putting off writing my review of Daniel Pennac’s The Rights of the Reader. Quite honestly, the tasks of weeding through all the amazing quotes I wanted to share and shrinking all my comments down into a manageable review were rather daunting. Really, I would recommend that anyone even remotely interested in the book head out to the local bookstore or library and just get a copy. At only 165 highly illustrated pages, The Rights of the Reader takes no time to get through but will leave you with plenty to ponder.

The Rights of the Reader was originally written in French and published in 1992. The edition I read, published by Candlewick Press in 2008, was translated by Sarah Adams and illustrated and introduced by the fabulous Quentin Blake (who illustrated all of Roald Dahl’s books). Pennac, now a writer, used to teach, which explains why much of The Rights of the Reader focuses on the pedagogy of reading (as it is approached in France) and the relationship between young people and books.

The book is divided into four parts, which build on each other:

Part 1: Birth of the Alchemist

In the opening section of The Rights of the Reader, Pennac contrasts the teenage reluctant reader and with the young child  eagerly awaiting her bedtime story. How does a child go from being entranced by books to struggling with them? From finding magic in the first word written word he learns to dreading the English composition due Friday? How does reading go from a joy–a reward, even–to a chore, a form of punishment?

There is, of course, television. There are generational differences. But Pennac places a heavy responsibility on the parents:

If young people don’t like reading, let’s not blame television or the modern world or school. Or rather, blame them all, but only after asking what we have done to that ideal reader since the days when we played at being both storyteller and book.

With the onset of school, Mom and Dad start thinking like teachers instead of reading to a child with no strings attached. They expect their child to explain what he’s read, asking questions to make sure he’s understood. Instead of being allowed to experience the language and emotions, children are required to interpret each story. With these changing expectations comes a change in the child’s attitude toward reading. And to Pennac, parents play a role in this shift.

The key, says Pennac, to preventing this crippling transformation is reading aloud. Even when a child has begun learning to read, her parents must continue to bring stories alive for her.

Part 2: Reading Matters (The Dogma)

In the second section, Pennac turns his attention to how the French school system teaches books. He comments:

Schools everywhere have always confined themselves to making students learn techniques and write essays, while proscribing treading for pleasure. It seems to be established in perpetuity, in every part of the world, that enjoyment has no part to play in the curriculum, and that knowledge can only be the fruit of suffering.

There is, of course, the occasional teacher who manages to impart her enthusiasm for her subject to her students, but this sort of educator is rare. Kids who liked reading before they got to school will continue to read, regardless of their classes. The ones who didn’t probably won’t become readers through school; they’ll just learn to “talk around the book” in order to pass their literature classes.

Pennac’s argument is by all means, teach the curriculum, but teach it with enthusiasm. Help the students learn to love reading by sharing your enthusiasm for and enjoyment of books. And–yes–read aloud.

Part 3: The Gift of Reading

For this third part of The Rights of the Reader, Pennac sets up a fictional class:

Failures is the word. Washed up, while their friends are safely on board high school steamers heading for “big careers.” This is the human wreckage left behind by the academic tide.

Lucky students. They’ve ended up with a teacher who will read to them. He pulls out a massive tome and begins to read, despite the students’ protests that they are too old, or not interested. They need not take notes, he assures them; they need only listen. And so they do. As he reads, time flies. The students discover that books do not, in fact, require mountains of time to get through; nor are they necessarily dull. By reading aloud and simply asking the students to listen, the teacher undoes all his pupils’ preconceived notions of what it means to read.

Pennac insists that, once the interest in books has been rekindled, learning and reading will follow naturally. Heck, the curriculum might even get covered without anyone noticing. Pennac writes:

The question of what [the students have] understood (the final question) isn’t without interest. Have they understood the text? Yes, yes, of course. But what they’ve understood above all is that once you’ve come to terms with the idea of reading, and the text is no longer a paralyzing enigma, then the struggle to find its meaning becomes a pleasure. The fear of not understanding overcome, effort and pleasure work powerfully in tandem. The more I try, the more I enjoy; and the more I enjoy, the more I want to try.

Part 4: The Rights of the Reader

In this section, Pennac lists ten Rights of the Reader and offers a brief discussion of each. It was my favorite part of the book, the piece to which I could best relate and the easiest lesson to take away with me. To keep this post from developing into a book itself, I’ll just refer you to my earlier post about The Rights of the Reader, in which I list and discuss each of the ten rights.

My Thoughts

I really enjoyed Pennac’s The Rights of the Reader. Though I am neither a parent nor an educator, the points he makes resonate with my own experience. When my siblings and I were children, my mother spent long hours reading to us from all kinds of books. We would bring our pillows and blankets into one sibling’s room according to a rotating schedule. Then we would all curl up together to listen to the story. These daily reading sessions are among my fondest memories, and I have no doubt they helped shape me into the reader I am today.

In high school, though, the constant analysis of classics led me to avoid them. Until very recently, I don’t think I’d ever picked up a classic outside of a classroom setting. To me, classics were boring and hard and inaccessible without the application of extended effort.

Not long ago, I decided to listen to To Kill a Mockingbird as an audiobook, and you know what? I loved it. I’ve listened to several classics since then and enjoyed every one. It helps me immensely to have the stories brought alive through the reader’s voice. I’ve found I will pick classics up more readily and enjoy them more easily in written form now that I’ve gotten over my classics angst.

I’d spent years suspecting classics existed just to torture poor students. When I read this line in third section of The Rights of the Reader, I felt like it had been written for me:

What we need to understand is that books weren’t written so that young people could write essays about them, but so that they could read them if they really wanted to.

Is every parent going to devote hours to reading to his child? Probably not. Will every teacher, upon reading The Rights of the Reader suddenly begin to infuse her teaching with enthusiasm and spend every class reading Joyce and Salinger to her students? I doubt it. But this slim little volume has wonderful things to say about books and reading to anyone who will listen, be they teacher, parent, student, or book lover.

Bonus: A Wordle!

One of the minichallenges, hosted by Carina at Reading Through Life, during last Saturday’s Readathon was to create a Wordle based on a post you liked. I used Pennac’s ten Rights of the Reader from my earlier post about them. Here’s my Wordle:

Your Turn!

How do you feel about Pennac’s observations? Do you have any examples (or counterexamples) from your own experience?

Review: “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger

October 18, 2010
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I read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger for Banned Books Week in September. It took me some time to figure out what I wanted to say about the novel, so my review is a bit delayed. Better late than never, I suppose!

About the Book:

Holden Caulfield has been kicked out of multiple well-known boys’ schools. In fact, he begins his story just after he’s been expelled from Pencey, his latest, and is waiting out the final days of the term before Christmas holidays, when he will leave Pencey for good and return to New York City. One night, a few days before winter break begins, Holden decides he’s too “sad and lonesome” to wait the term out at Pencey. He packs his bags, gets on a train to New York, and spends the next few days killing time in the city, wandering from hotel to bar to museum, calling anyone he can think of, and avoiding his parents.

The novel really only spans those few days, from just before Holden leaves Pencey to just before he sees his parents. It’s bookended by just enough mentions of “this crumby place” to make you suspect he’s not narrating from home or school. These brief paragraphs are all we really get of Holden’s future beyond the story he tells.

My Thoughts:

The Catcher in The Rye Cover

How, exactly, does one review J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye? Perhaps I’ve been brainwashed by four years of high school, but I feel a composition exploring themes and unraveling characters would be more appropriate than a blog post. The difference between high school and now, though, is that I thoroughly enjoyed the reading and wouldn’t mind writing that paper!

I never read The Catcher in the Rye in high school. It was an option, but I chose to read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston instead. As I opened the copy of Salinger I’d gotten from the library for Banned Books Week, it occurred to me that I had no idea what the book was about. After reading the novel, I feel my question was misguided. It’s not what the book is about that’s important–it’s who.

Holden’s voice is what made The Catcher in the Rye for me. It’s rambling and unfiltered and exaggerated, teeming with verbal idiosyncracies and reeking of Holden’s personality. If you haven’t yet met Holden, here is a taste:

Anyway, I put on my new hat and sat down and started reading that book Out of Africa. I’d read it already, but I wanted to read certain parts over again. I’d only read about three pages, though, when I heard somebody coming through the shower curtains. Even without looking up, I knew right away who it was. It was Robert Ackley, this guy that roomed right next to me. There was a shower right between every two rooms in our wing, and about eighty-five times a day old Ackley barged in on me. He was probably the only guy in the whole dorm, besides me, that wasn’t down at the game. He hardly ever went anywhere. He was a very peculiar guy. He was a senior, and he’d been at Pencey the whole four years and all, but nobody ever called him anything except “Ackley.” Not even Herb Gale, his own roommate, ever called him “Bob” or even “Ack.” If he ever gets married, his own wife’ll probably call him “Ackley.” He was one of these very, very tall, round-shouldered guys–he was about six four–with lousy teeth. The whole time he roomed next to me, I never even once saw him brush his teeth. They always looked mossy and awful, and he damn near made you sick if you saw him in the dining room with his mouth full of mashed potatoes and peas or something. Besides that, he had a lot of pimples. Not just on his forehead or his chin, like most guys, but all over his whole face. And not only that, he had a terrible personality. He was also sort of a nasty guy. I wasn’t too crazy about him, to tell you the truth.

Long-winded? Meandering? Yes. That’s Holden.

Crazy as he might have been, I really liked Holden. The poor guy is disillusioned with pretty much everything in his young world, so his attitude is as sour as they come. He acts badass, but he’s just a nice guy underneath. Despite all the swearing (seriously, the most foul-mouthed of sailors would be proud), I can see why this book is often a favorite of high school English students. Holden is relatable in a way many other classics characters are not.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Holden quotes:

What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.

Your Turn!

Have you read The Catcher in the Rye? If so, how old were you when you did? If not, do you have any interest in it? And of course…what author do you wish was a “terrific friend of yours” so you could call him or her whenever you liked?

The Sunday Salon: How Do You Cope?

October 17, 2010

The Sunday Salon.com

A few days ago, Clare from The Literary Omnivore and I had the following conversation on Twitter about a particularly bad book she was reading:

ErinReadsblog: Do you abandon awful books or just plow through? I find they often slow my overall reading down because I’m busy avoiding them.

litomnivore:  I plow. I’m a completionist. Although, this one is a bad thriller, so I can narrate passages in my Batman voice and giggle.

Aside from providing a fantastic (and unexpected) mental image, this brief discussion made me think. I’ve considered which side of the fence I’m on regarding “awful books,” but Clare’s comment made me realize I’ve never gone any deeper than just picking a side. I’ve definitely never thought about how to make reading an “awful book” more fun (Batman voice, anyone?). So today, I’m taking a look at how I cope with the dreaded “awful books,” and why.

A definition, to kick things off:

Cope (verb)

1. to struggle or deal, esp. on fairly even terms or with some degree of success (from Dictionary.com)

I like this definition because it puts me on equal footing with my book, so that we become two entities sort of sizing one another up. Like two people, my book and I may not see eye to eye. In such situations, I have to figure out how to deal with this lack of alignment. (Lucky book…its inanimate-ness exempts it from such strategizing!)

Whereas Clare is a self-proclaimed “completionist,” I am firmly in the “life is too short to read bad books” camp. Which would make me…an abandonist? Or at least, I am when it comes to reading for pleasure. Of course, different reader-book relationships require different coping strategies. I find I have three:

Coping Strategy 1: Abandon the “Awful Book”

If I chose the book to read for pleasure, I give it about 50 pages. If, by then, I’m not feeling it, I give myself permission to set it aside. Otherwise, I’ll just feel guilty about not reading it, and it will weigh me (and my reading) down like a big, papery albatross.

It sometimes takes me a few days to realize I’m not crazy about a book. If, one day, I realize I haven’t read much lately, one of my books is usually to blame. I feel obligated to read the “awful book,” but I don’t want to, so I just allow my reading in general to taper off. So, my rule is: if I’m not trying to find time to spend with a particular book, it probably just isn’t for me. I can get rid of it altogether or just save it for later, but it gets removed from my current reading rotation.

Along these same lines, Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, recently posted an article about reading and happiness. In it, she advocates reading something you actually want to read instead of something you feel like you should read. She quotes Samuel Johnson: “What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.” I do find that’s true for me, and I often feel like I’m squandering time and brain power when I struggle with a book that doesn’t really appeal.

Coping Strategy 2: Read the “Awful Book” as Quickly as Possible

If I’m reading a book I’ve agreed to review, I force myself to read it in order to fulfill my commitment. I might skim, but I’m not a big fan of DNF (did not finish) reviews, so I do try to get through the whole thing. I let myself scribble snarky, sarcastic notes about the book as I’m reading, which I then tone down for the actual review.

I often choose to focus solely on the book in question until it’s finished. My reasons for doing so are twofold: first, I get it over with as soon as possible, and second, isolating the “awful book” prevents me from comparing it with whatever other (hopefully better) book I’m reading.

Coping Strategy 3: Read the “Awful Book” in Small, Spaced Out Chunks

If an “awful book” is for a book group, class, or other meeting, I try to space out my reading so that I take lots of little bites instead of one big, slimy gulp. By breaking it up into chunks, I only have to read a little at a time. It becomes like a daily chore, unpleasant but necessary.

After I wrote strategies #2 and #3, I realized that they are a drastically different approach to the same kind of book: one I have to read but just don’t enjoy. Why not just read the “awful book” for book group super fast and be done with it? I suspect it has something to do with having to remember the information. Whereas an “awful book” can be quickly read, reviewed, and forgotten, it must be remembered for longer if it is to be discussed with other people. Breaking up the text helps the book stick. In addition, an assigned book has a deadline by which it must be read. While a book for review may have an approximate goal for completion, the deadline is usually both more flexible and up to me to reinforce. I could put it off indefinitely! Better to just read it and be done.

So there you have it…my in-depth look at how I cope with “awful books.”

What about you?

Are you a completionist, an abandonist, or both? Always, or just in certain situations? Why do you think you cope with “awful books” the way you do? And of course, do you–like Clare–have any creative coping techniques? I’d love to hear from you!

Photo credit

In My Mailbox: October 10-16

October 16, 2010

In My Mailbox is a weekly meme, hosted by The Story Siren, in which bloggers share books they’ve acquired in the mail / at the library / from a bookstore.

Books came to me from every direction this week! One arrived in the mail, one came home with me from the bookstore, and one (um…I  mean eight) got checked out of the library. Here are the highlights:

The Girl Next Door by Selene Castrovilla

I won a copy of this new young adult novel during Book Blogger Appreciation Week last month. It arrived this week, and I’ve already read it–review to come! Here’s the jacket blurb (thankfully, the writing in the book is better than what’s on the jacket):

The Girl Next Door Cover

“While most seniors at her high school are worrying about prom and final exams, seventeen-year-old Sam is desperately trying to save her best friend Jesse’s life. He has a rare, treatment-resistant form of cancer, and his odds of survival aren’t good–he may have only ten months to live. Through every bit of his pain and anguish, Sam has been by his side–through the grueling, aggressive treatments and their awful aftermath, to sleeping in his room at night when he’s afraid to be alone. Best friends and neighbors since preschool, Jesse and Sam’s friendship is changing–now they’re falling in love, and the bond between them grows stronger even as Jesse weakens. Will they have a happy ending…or will their story end in heartbreak?”

Blindness by Jose Saramago

I am slowly working my way through Death with Interruptions by Saramago. Despite my snail’s-pace progress, I am thoroughly loving the book. I’ve heard great things about Blindness, so when my mother (who I’m visiting this weekend) offered to buy me a book at her local store’s member appreciation sale, this is the one I picked. It even has the pre-movie cover, which makes especially awesome! From the back of the book:

Blindness Cover

“A city is hit by an epidemic of ‘white blindness’ which spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but there the criminal element holds everyone captive, stealing food rations and assaulting women. There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides seven strangers–among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears–through the barren streets, and the procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing. A magnificent parable of loss and disorientation and a vivid evocation of the horrors of the twentieth century, Blindness is a powerful portrayal of man’s worst appetites and weaknesses–and man’s ultimately exhilarating spirit.”

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (audiobook)

First up from my library acquisitions is Good Omens, the audiobook. When Amanda at The Zen Leaf compared Good Omens to the movie Dogma and declared it her favorite out of the books she’s read by either author, I was intrigued. Plus, I’m always up for a good audiobook. From GoodReads:

Good Omens Cover

“The world will end on Saturday. Next Saturday. Just before dinner, according to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, the world’s only completely accurate book of prophecies written in 1655. The armies of Good and Evil are amassing and everything appears to be going according to Divine Plan. Except that a somewhat fussy angel and a fast-living demon are not actually looking forward to the coming Rapture. And someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist.”

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I have been meaning to read this book forever and ever. Seriously. But this month, Chrisbookarama is hosting the The Princess Bride readalong, and my Google Reader keeps presenting me with posts from the participants. Unable to withstand the onslaught, I caved and requested a copy from my library. Hooray! Summary from GoodReads:

The Princess Bride Cover

“What happens when the most beautiful girl in the world marries the handsomest prince of all time and he turns out to be…well…a lot less than the man of her dreams?

As a boy, William Goldman claims, he loved to hear his father read the S. Morgenstern classic, The Princess Bride. But as a grown-up he discovered that the boring parts were left out of good old Dad’s recitation, and only the ‘good parts’ reached his ears.

Now Goldman does Dad one better. He’s reconstructed the ‘Good Parts Version’ to delight wise kids and wide-eyed grownups everywhere.

What’s it about? Fencing. Fighting. True Love. Strong Hate. Harsh Revenge. A Few Giants. Lots of Bad Men. Lots of Good Men. Five or Six Beautiful Women. Beasties Monstrous and Gentle. Some Swell Escapes and Captures. Death, Lies, Truth, Miracles, and a Little Sex.

In short, it’s about everything.”

And there you have it–those are my book acquisition highlights for the week. Has anything fantastic wandered across your path over the past seven days? Do tell!

Review: “Something Missing” by Matthew Dicks

October 15, 2010

I’ve spent this week talking about the books I read during last Saturday’s Readathon. I’ve gone in order from least favorite to most. Since this is my last review, we’ve reached my favorite Readathon read! See below for links to the rest of the week’s reviews.

My colleagues at my old bookstore job tried to tell me about Something Missing, the debut novel by Matthew Dicks. They told me over and over what it was about, how good it was. “Sounds cute,” I thought–and yet the galley I’d picked up on a whim languished on my shelf. While combing my shelves for quick, light, engaging Readathon reading, I happened across it again and figured, why not? Now I’m asking myself why the heck I waited so long!

About the Book:

Something Missing Cover

Martin, a middle-aged man with OCD tendencies, runs a thriving business. He is maintains successful relationships with many long-term clients and is constantly acquiring new ones. His work ethic is admirable, his self discipline unswerving. He’s even read Jim Collins.

So what does Martin do? He is a professional thief. But he isn’t the sort of thief that draws attention to himself. Instead, he takes only small items — some Advil, a can of tomatoes, half a bottle of laundry detergent — that will not be missed, and he takes them only after prolonged and painstaking observation. His key to success, he knows, is his unerring adherence to the rules he’s developed.

And then, one day, he breaks a rule. He manages to wriggle out of a potentially disastrous situation, but something he overhears alters his sense of purpose. As he becomes a little too involved in his clients’ lives, Martin inadvertently sets off down a one-way path that will forever change his life.

My Thoughts:

Something Missing is about a thief, but I wouldn’t call it a crime novel. It’s not a mystery at all. You know who the thief is–his name is the first word you encounter on page one. It is, instead, a novel about a guy finding his way in life. Oh, and he just happens to be a career criminal.

Doesn’t that sound like fun? What an original plot, no? But what makes this book so very wonderful is its execution. Dicks writes the way Martin thinks, with precision and extreme organization, from the level of the whole story all the way down to each individual word. I loved all of Martin’s rules and the logic behind them. I was fascinated (and a little horrified) by his processes, the casual observations he made about homeowners and how he applied these generalities to his work.

And it’s funny, too. For example, as Martin tries to get a toothbrush out of its plastic case (quote is from an ARC):

“[H]e realized with unmitigated horror that the toothbrush was still encased in its plastic container, the type of plastic designed by the communist architects who built maximum security prisons for the North Koreans.”

Yep, I know exactly what sort of package the poor guy is facing.

As you’re reading, you know you really shouldn’t like a guy who cases people’s homes extensively and then steals from them for years. The things he does, if done by any other thief, would be despicable. And yet, I couldn’t help liking Martin. I mean, the guy reads Jim Collins, for goodness sake! He’s taught me things as well, such as always use the deadbolt on the back and side doors and, if a diamond earring goes missing, don’t spend too much time looking for it. As the story progresses, you start to think maybe he’s not such a bad guy after all.

From start to finish, Something Missing by Matthew Dicks was a delight. From its wildly original premise to its fascinating enigma of a main character, it pulled me in from the first page and held me riveted until the end. If you are looking for something light and fun and a little off-beat, give Something Missing a try.

Matthew Dicks also has a new book out, entitled Unexpectedly Milo. I might have to check it out!

Your Turn!

Have you read Something Missing? Do you know of other books that are similar, maybe that are about a criminal without actually being a crime novel?

———————

Readathon books I’ve reviewed so far:

And that’s all of them!

Review: “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster

October 14, 2010

I’ll be spending this week talking about the books I read during last Saturday’s Readathon. I’ll be going in order from least favorite to most.

About the Book:

10-year-old Milo isn’t interested in anything at all. Life is boring, ho-hum. That is, until he comes home one day to find a mysterious package in his room. “ONE GENUINE TURNPIKE TOLLBOOTH,” reads the accompanying card. “EASILY ASSEMBLED AT HOME, AND FOR USE BY THOSE WHO HAVE NEVER TRAVELED IN LANDS BEYOND.” Confused, but having nothing better to do, Milo assembles the tollbooth (signs and all), hops into his small mechanical car, and drives through.

From the land of Expectations to the Doldrums, from the cities of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis to the Island of Conclusions (to which you must jump, of course), Milo travels through this new land. He learns that long ago, the kingdom of Wisdom flourished here, but that a feud between the ruling brothers–King Azaz of Dictionopolis and the Mathemagician of Digitopolis–resulted in the collapse of the kingdom and the banishment of the fair princesses, Rhyme and Reason. With Tock the watchdog and a Humbug as his companions, Milo sets sets off to rescue Rhyme and Reason and restore the kingdom of Wisdom to its former glory.

My Thoughts:

I never read this book as a child. I picked up a used copy a few months ago, and it looked like it would be a good Readathon book. It was! The Phantom Tollbooth is positively delightful. Having missed it as a child, I don’t have the deep-rooted attachment to it that comes from growing up with a book or movie, but I loved it anyway.

It is a whimsical fantasy story, so bursting with creativity and packed with wit that I hardly knew what to do with myself as I read it. Every character comes with a clever background and a snappy name, both of which hook into his purpose in the story. Every place has some point to make. Words get twisted, expectations get turned on their heads. While all of this allegory business could certainly have gotten old quickly, I had no such problems. On the contrary, I was delighted at every turn by the downright cleverness of it all.

For instance, there are the king’s five advisers: The Duke of Definition, The Minister of Meaning, The Earl of Essence, The Count of Connotation, and The Undersecretary of Understanding. They travel in a pack, stating the same thing five times in five different ways, thus demonstrating the variety and versatility of words available for use. Through their banter, Milo realizes how many words he’s been missing out on.

Would you care to read some samples of the silliness? Very well. Here Milo has just gotten into a wagon with the king’s advisers to attend a royal banquet in Dictionolpolis. Concerned about the wagon’s apparent lack of driving mechanism, Milo asks:

“How are you going to make it move? It doesn’t have a–“

“Be very quiet,” advised the duke, “for it goes without saying.”

And, sure enough, as soon as they were all quite still, it began to move quickly through the streets, and in a very short time they arrived at the royal palace.

Ha! I love it. Many of the wonderful conversations in The Phantom Tollbooth are far to long to post here, but rest assured that they are even more charming than the snippet above.

In short, The Phantom Tollbooth is a lot of fun. Anyone who enjoys light fantasy, likes words and language, or has a penchant for well-done allegory will no doubt be glad they spent a few hours breezing through this childhood classic.

Your Turn!

Have you read The Phantom Tollbooth? Seen the movie? What about a similar book? Are there childhood classics you didn’t read until later in life?

———————

Readathon books I’ve reviewed so far:

Still to come:

  • Something Missing by Matthew Dicks

Review: “Al Capone Shines My Shoes” by Gennifer Choldenko (Audiobook)

October 13, 2010

I’ll be spending this week talking about the books I read during last Saturday’s Readathon. I’ll be going in order from least favorite to most.

Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko is the sequel to Al Capone Does My Shirts, which received a Newbery Honor award. Set on Alcatraz during the Great Depression, both stories are told by Matthew “Moose” Flanagan, a 12-year-old baseball fanatic whose father works as a prison guard. The second novel does build on the first, but not so much that Al Capone Shines My Shoes wouldn’t be enjoyable on its own.

The GoodReads summary has this to say about the novel:

It’s 1935. Moose Flanagan lives on Alcatraz with his family, the other families of the guards, and a few hundred no-name hit men, con men, mad dog murderers and a handful of bank robbers too. And one of those cons has just done him a big favor.

You see, Moose has never met Al Capone, but a few weeks ago Moose wrote a letter to him asking him to use his influence to get his sister, Natalie, into a school she desperately needs in San Francisco. After Natalie got accepted, a note appeared in Moose’s freshly laundered shirt that said: Done.

As this book begins, Moose discovers a new note. This one says: Your turn. Is it really from Capone? What does it mean? Moose can’t risk anything that might get his dad fired. But how can he ignore Al Capone?

I really enjoyed Al Capone Shines My Shoes, even more than Al Capone Does My Shirts. The stakes are higher, and the characters, though the same in both novels, are more complex in the second. The writing is engaging, the story believable enough. Moose is a good kid who has dug himself into a bit of a hole trying to help his family. As he deals with his crush, his dueling best friends, his family, and the rules of living on Alcatraz, he’s also faced with the little issue of Al Capone.

Following the story is a section of author’s notes, which I enjoyed hearing. This section explains what was real in the story and what was made up and includes recollections from people who actually lived on Alcatraz while it was a functioning prison. It also explains that the inspiration for Natalie, Moose’s developmentally disabled sister, was actually Choldenko’s own sister. It was fascinating to hear about Alcatraz’s history as well as the way in which Choldenko wove bits of her own life into her novel.

Kirby Heyborne, who read the audiobook, did a fantastic job. He differentiates well between characters and is consistent with the voices he uses for each. His pacing and phrasing are easy to listen to and understand. Plus, I could totally hear his voice as Moose’s, which is especially important to me when a story features first person narration (as this one does).

These novels are geared toward middle school readers, but I enjoyed them both. They had plenty of substance and intrigue to hold my attention, and the premise is quite creative. If a third one is written, I’ll be reading it too!

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Readathon books I’ve reviewed so far:

Still to come:

  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
  • Something Missing by Matthew Dicks
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