Saturday, March 30, 2013

Book Review: Jake, Reinvented

Jake, Reinvented
Gordan Korman's Jake, Reinvented is a modern-day retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. It was recommended to me by some other teachers at my school. Some of them teach Jake in its entirety, paired with excepts from Gatsby, to increase student understanding.

 Now, I have admit that I was skeptical at first. I don't think that I'm an English snob--I love young adult novels and firmly believe in introducing students to books they will actually enjoy. If I'm being completely honest, I have to confess that I don't even like a lot of the so-called "classics." But Gatsby--that's different. I love and adore Gatsby. So the idea of teaching a YA novel about high school football players and keg parties in place of this cornerstone of American literature seemed pretty ludicrous to me.

 But in spite of my misgivings, I decided to give Jake a try. I teach a lab class for students who are weaker in English, so I decided to read Jake with them in order to complement the Gatsby they were reading in their regular English classes. As I read, the English nerd in me rejoiced over the clever ties to Gatsby. And my students--kids who hate reading--actually got excited about Jake. I have one girl who was so curious about what would happen next that she read several chapters ahead--and this from a girl who generally doesn't do homework. And I have another student, a boy who is a native Spanish-speaker who somewhat struggles with reading in English, who tells me daily that he really loves this book. So I'm sold. Jake, Reinvented is good stuff. Maybe not a replacement for Gatsby, but definitely worth a read in its own right.

 The story centers around high school student Jake Garrett. He's the new kid in town. he shows up at the cleverly-named Fitzgerald High and takes the place by storm. He's well-dressed, smooth, and confident--and he throws amazing parties every Friday night. Every kid in school is begging for an invitation.

The story is narrated by Rick Paradis, who lives in the same neighborhood as his classmate Jake. Rick is the only one who takes the time to get to know Jake on a more personal level, and thus eventually discovers some of his secrets. It seems that Jake used to know the gorgeous Didi Ray, who is now dating star quarterback Todd Buckley. Todd is cheating on Didi with cheerleader Melissa Fantino, who is dating big, strong, stupid lineman Nelson Jaworski. Jake is determined to win Didi for himself, no matter what the cost.

 Sound confusing? For Gatsby fans, you can tie these characters back to Jay Gatsby, Nick Carroway, Daisy Fay, Tom Buchanan, Myrtle, and George Wilson, it all becomes a little more clear. But Jake, Reinvented can also stand on its own. Rick has a history of his own with best friend/love interest Jennifer Belanger, and their storyline here is far more interesting that the Nick/Jordan relationship in Gatsby. And while Gatsby is rich with the history of the 1920s, Jake meets high school students right where they are. Gatsby's treatment of new vs. old money may be lost on modern students, but Jake's navigation of the high school caste system rings true to them.

 Jake, Reinvented is a quick and enjoyable read. I'd recommend it to fans of young adult literature, or to anyone who needs an assist in translating the ideas of Gatsby to the modern world. I still don't see it as a substitute for Gatsby, but as a supplement or a stand-alone, it's a good read.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Book Review: Because of Mr. Terupt

I picked up Because of Mr. Terupt at my daughter's elementary school library when a teacher recommended it to me.  It is Rob Buyea's first novel, and after reading it, I am anxiously looking forward to reading more from him.  Because of Mr. Terupt has won all kinds of awards, including State Book Award nominations in 14 states and being a Cybiles finalist.

Because of Mr. Terupt is the story of a fifth grade teacher and his students.  The story is narrated in alternating chapters by seven different students.  Jessica, Alexia, Peter, Luke, Danielle, Anna, and Jeffrey all have very different personalities and struggles.  Some of them have problems at home; some of them worry about academics.  All of them are looking for friendship, trying to discover who they are, and searching for understanding and acceptance.

Mr. Terupt is unlike any teacher they've ever had before.  His lessons are creative and engaging, and his lessons extend from math to life.  He is unendingly patient and never gets angry with them--even when they deserve it.  He cares deeply about each of his students and, without them realizing it at first, gives each child exactly what they need.  But then, an accident occurs, and the students are lft to wonder who carries the blame for harming the teacher they all love.

As a teacher, this book pulled strongly at my heartstrings.  Mr. Terupt has the kind of relationship with his students that all good teachers dream of.  He engages them intellectually, and he impacts each of them deeply.  Yet is not painted as "pefect;" both the students and the adults in their lives acknowledge Mr. Terupt's weaknessess while still loving him and honoring his strengths.

But while the book is named after Mr. Terupt, the real story here belongs to the students.  As they enter adolescence, each has his or her own individual struggles.  While Mr. Terupt starts each of them along the path to facing their problems, they are then left to navigate hard choices on their own.  Mr. Terupt is the mentor that all kids should have, but the story rings very true to life, in that ultimately, each child is responsible for their own choices and their own growth.

The story is beautifully written, and Buyea develops unique, lovable, and believable voices for each of the seven students.  I would highly recommend this book for any teacher who dreams of impacting their students, for any adolescent facing the pressures and confusion of growing up, or for any parent who needs a refresher on what their kids are facing.  This poignant story is sure to engage and inspire.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Book Review: The Maze of Bones
In my current graduate class (Electronic Materials for Children and Young Adults), we're currently studying transmedia storytelling.  Basically, these are stories that combine several different mediums, including print, electronic, audio, video, gaming, and social media, to create vivid stories.  (If this sounds intriguing to you, check out my class's webpage to learn more.)

In the past, I have thought of myself as largely a traditionalist when it comes to books.  I prefer print books to ebooks... honestly, it has taken me a long time to come around to even admitting that ebooks do have their advantages.  So I didn't really expect to like transmedia storytelling.  When I first started reading about it, I thought that it would be kind of overwhelming.  I also that that it would be very time-consuming to switch from one form of media to another, and that readers might get confused when switching between materials.  I wondered if otherwise enthusiastic readers might run up against difficulties with accessing the different forms of technology, or in seeing how it all fits together.

Then I started checking out some of examples of transmedia stories.  I explored several of the websites discussed on my class's webpage.  To be honest, while I liked the ideas presented in a lot of them, I remained skeptical about the experience.  For me, books have always allowed for so much imagination that I didn't really see what all those other media elements could add.  I mean, I don't even like to see movies that are based on books--they always fall short of my imagination!

But then I checked out the 39 Clues series.  I read the first book, The Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan.  The 39 Clues series is one of the prime examples of transmedia storytelling for children right now.  This series is a collaboration by many of the current "greats" in children's and young adult literature, including Rick Riordan, Patrick Carman, Judy Blundell, Gordon Korman, David Baldacci, and Margaret Peterson Haddix.

The series tells the story of the Cahill family, with a focus on adolescents Amy and Dan.  Apparently the Cahill family has many branches, but they can all be traced back to common ancestors.  Members of this family include basically every famous person to ever influence history, including Annie Oakley, Benjamin Franklin, Wolfgang Mozart, William Shakespeare, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and more.  Now the current members of the Cahill family are locked in a struggle to uncover the great secrets of their family.  It takes the form of a treasure hunt, with clues leading them from destination to destination--and it turns family members against each other as they compete to be the first to the prize.

In the first book in the series, The Maze of Bones, Amy and Dan learn the background of their family and embark on the hunt for clues.  They are pitted against older and more ruthless relatives, yet against all odds, they succeed.

The book itself captured my interest and my imagination, but it also seemed to be able to stand alone--meaning that I didn't need to access any other form of media to be able to understand and enjoy the story.  So yes, it was completely possible to enjoy this book without engaging in the whole "transmedia" experience.  But for those that want to get the full effect, there's a rich world to explore outside the basic story.

When I checked the book out of my local library, the librarian also gave me a stack of six cards to go with it.  I flipped through them several times and didn't initially understand what they were to be used for or how to interpret them--except that they all said to refer to the website.

So I checked out the 39 Clues website.  That was when I really started to see what is so exciting and different about transmedia storytelling.  While The Maze of Bones could stand on its own, it was greatly enhanced by the interactive website.

The site encourages users to "Read the books.  Collect the cards.  Play the game."  The website definitely keeps the tone of the story and draws readers into the experience.  To begin, I had to answer a series of questions to determine which branch of the Cahill family I would belong to.  It was both fun and interactive--though I was pretty disappointed when it turned out that I'm a Lucian.  (Most of the members of the Lucian family in The Maze of Bones are bad guys, although the branch did have some historic good members).

After registering, I was listed as a "classified agent" and ready to explore the site further.  I entered the code from my set of cards, then asked to solve a message written in a cipher code.  I then started on my "missions" to earn more cards.... and more secrets of the Cahill family!  I found the website to be completely addictive.... though I do have to sadly report that I was not very good at most of the games!  (Guess it's pretty clear that reading, not gaming, is my forte.)

If you're looking for a unique reading experience to draw in kids ages 10 and up, then I highly recommend the 39 Clues series and its website.  It would be a great took for hooking reluctant readers.  This would also be a really fun series for parents to read with their children, then try to solve the clues together as their own "team of Cahills."  While I was skeptical about transmedia storytelling at first, now I think I'm hooked!