Book Snap #57

Title: Where The Crawdads Sing

Author: Delia Owens

Date Read: July 19, 2019

Two snaps!

This New York Times Best Seller came highly recommended by friends who had read it, and it did not disappoint!

Owens writes in an elegant prose that transports you to the North Carolina marshlands and surrounds you with the sights and sounds of the southeastern United States. A wildlife scientist herself, Owens layers her tale with precise and deliberate descriptions of nature unfolding through seasons and landscapes.

“And just at that second, the wind picked up, and thousands upon thousands of yellow sycamore leaves broke from their life support and streamed across the sky. Autumn leaves don’t fall; they fly. They take their time and wander on this, their only chance to soar. Reflecting sunlight, they swirled and sailed and fluttered on the wind drafts.”

(Owens, p. 124)

This is a compelling and heart-wrenching coming-of-age story. The central character, Kya, is as complex as she is misunderstood. Kya, or “The Marsh Girl” as she is known by the townspeople who shun, ridicule and exclude her, is hauntingly alone but resolutely determined. She navigates heartbreak, questions how to trust others, and struggles to make sense of how to know and understand love. Interspersed within this beautiful narrative an engrossing murder mystery unravels as we flash back and forward through Kya’s life, wondering at the threads of who might have killed Chase, the town’s handsome quarterback.

This book has it all: a tumultuous family upheaval; a beautiful love story; a fascinating murder mystery, a courtroom drama reminiscent of Atticus Finch, and ethereal prose. An absolute must-read.

Book Snap #56

Title: The Woo Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons and My Crazy Chinese Family

Author: Lindsay Wong

Date Read: July 16, 2019

Two snaps

Almost unbelievable. Like, when Oprah couldn’t seem to wrap her mind around James Frey’s memoir… but here it was, wildly incredible– but just grounded in enough legitimacy that you have to let go and trust Lindsay Wong as she recounts her wildly eccentric life with keen prose that is at once castigating of her parents and her upbringing and also graciously sympathetic to the mental illness that ran unchecked amongst them all.

In the prologue Wong sets us up for the ride. Finding herself in a neurologist’s office in Manhattan, she discovers that she has migraine-related vistibulopathy– an intense neurological disorder that plagues her with acute vertigo. This diagnosis is a relief to her, because it is not the Woo-Woo. The Woo-Woo are the ghosts that her Chinese family believed responsible for cancer, viruses, and psychological disturbances– and she and her family actively evade the Woo-Woo as best they can by camping out in Walmart parking lots, not sitting too long on the toilet, or living at the mall eating processed food and endless amounts of candy.

As a parent, my heart ached for Lindsay and her siblings and the disregard for their emotional and physical well-being as centuries-old beliefs kept her grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles from facing and treating the mental illnesses that made them unprepared and unable to cope with the needs of their generations of children. These disorienting relationships left Lindsay feeling crushingly alone, and often pushed her to react and retaliate with physical anger. A lot of her physical aggression was meted out as a goon in the hockey rink– and widely championed by her parents as they collected her medals and encouraged her high-sticking and brutal checking.

Wong offers an unflinching look at mental illness. Hers was a life filled with anxiety and uncertainty, where her needs were often neglected as she competed with the symptoms of her family’s crippling mental illnesses. Wong miraculously succeeds despite it all and shows a personal resiliency and fortitude beyond what could ever be expected.

It is a stunning memoir. Like a car crash in slow motion– you cannot look away. It is heart-breaking, candid, and somehow all at once funny, bitter and melancholy. It is a must-read. Wong’s bravery in telling this story makes her the real poster child for the Let’s Talk About Mental Illness campaign.

A 2019 Canada Reads contender.

Book Snap #55

Title: Shout

Author: Laurie Halse Anderson

Date Read: July 11, 2019

Two Snaps

Laurie Halse Anderson is well-versed in writing compelling novels for Young Adults. Her best-known novel, Speak, became a finalist for the National Book Award and won Anderson honours for its portrayal of a thirteen-year-old girl who becomes mute after a sexual assault.

Shout is an extension to her fiction, a poetic memoir written in free verse about her own life growing up as a teen, including details of her rape and the trauma she faced afterward. As she describes it, “The true story of a survivor who refused to be silenced.”

She writes about many pivotal moments throughout her life including how she came to love to read. This is a portion from the poem entitled, “lovebrarians”:

And so, with extra Leslie help and a chorus

of angels disguised as teachers and librarians

for years unstinting with love and hours

of practice, those ants finally marched

in straight lines for me

shaped words, danced sentences,

constructed worlds

for a girl finally learning how to read

I unlocked the treasure chest

and swallowed the key.

(Halse Anderson, p.26)

She writes about high school with prickling insight. I particularly liked the metaphor of lockers as “steel soldiers lined against the wall.” It made me recount those long girds running through my own high school. I could hear the metallic slamming and smell the rotten bananas inside. She is more condemning in “gauntlet, thrown” when she writes: “My high school was designed by an incarceration/ specialist to make the herding, the feeding/ and the slaughter proceed as efficiently as possible/ that’s what we thought,/ anyway…” (p.77)

Halse Anderson does not withdraw behind words, she uses them skillfully and without censor. Her voice is unapologetic. You echo in her anger, her frustration, her pain. She says she was “indoctrinated by magazine covers” (29). She tells us that: “the taste of shame smells/ like stubborn vomit in your hair” (32). Her father was “… a shitty driver/ and the booze sure didn’t help.” (127). When working as a court reporter during a rape trial, she watched the victim being re-victimized by the lawyer and then, “I saw myself crawling over the seats, leaping/ throwing punches, busting knuckles, breaking/ a chair over his head, the sweet sound of his teeth/ skittering across the floor/ my pencil snapped” (155).

Twenty years post publishing Speak, Halse Anderson puts up a memoir that rants. Using poetry, every word clamours for our attention. In the age of #metoo, it is an important read. Young Adult readers will resonate with this story, and will, hopefully, find comfort in it– and may be freed of the nightmares to tell their own stories too.

Book Snap #54

Title: Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities

Author: John Warner

Date Read: July 10, 2019

Two Snaps

This title drew me in– it tackles a problem I have wrestled with myself as an English Language Arts teacher. Discussion of the book had a lot of traction on Twitter amongst many people in my personal learning network. I had to read it.

Warner, a college writing professor, posits that much of the writing we ask students to do are simply imitations of writing. Writing is a skill. It is also a process that allows us to think and to respond to the world at large. It is a struggle, and it is difficult. But, as Warner argues: “[We] should also operate under the assumption that every student needs to prepare for the long haul of life as a writer because in truth, these days, everyone is a writer” (139).

The crux of Warner’s thesis is that the greatest barriers in the way of building better student writers are systemic. These include ingrained practices like the misguided fixation on grades– which intensify poor student mental health, add intense stress, provoke anxiety and heighten depression; a panoptic surveillance of student academics and behaviour realized in unrealistic “real-time data” portals; the standardization of testing that favours memorization and regurgitation; educational fads and misuses of technology.

For so long, school has been about performance divorced from learning; so it’s difficult to find value in anything other than an A.

Warner. p.41

He offers a thorough examination of these and other disincentives that manufacture an unappealing atmosphere, a grind– a place where teenagers, especially, are bound to affirm, “school sucks.” Devoid of curiosity and engagement, personal autonomy and motivation… is it any wonder that students don’t risk and experiment to build their skill as writers?

Warner contends that writing makes us better and more contented humans. Through writing, we can develop a capacity for empathy. It is an essential skill for our students because it enables them to act with more personal agency. And so, he devotes the last half of the book to providing examples of valuable writing experiences and approaches to help writers develop their skill– while still tackling further systemic barriers in a new framework.

Like many of the writers tackling educational issues I care about, Warner maintains that grades are antithetical to learning. He had me at hello on that one. He further claims that they are also demotivating, unfair, and maddeningly imprecise. They fail to reflect what a student has actually learned and they incentivize cheating and plagiarism. He, likewise, advocates for grading practices that emphasize self-reflection and agency. I thank all of my colleagues in the English department who have conspired with me on our own journey tackling this very issue. I hope this book validates your hard work.

Moreover, writing is a process, not a product. It takes patience and time. Let’s take the time.

Students who feel accepted and empowered, who are given a voice in their community that is heard and respected, are more engaged with school, more committed to learning, and more giving of themselves to those they are surrounded by.

Warner, p.240

Read Warner’s essay: “Kill the 5 Paragraph Essay.”

Book Snap #53

Title: Grading Smarter Not Harder: Assessment Strategies that Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn

Author: Myron Dueck

Date Read: July 7, 2019

Two Snaps

I was lucky to have attended a conference in which Myron Dueck was the keynote speaker. He is funny, energetic, and engaging, but most importantly, he cares about finding ways to engage students in their learning and finding assessment practices that fairly assess student knowledge and understanding.

Grades are a nebulous hangover of generations of teachers advancing the ways in which they had school done to them. For the most part, grading has served primarily to sort and rank students. Furthermore, schools have trained students to be grade-focused rather than learning-focused (Dueck, 101). The book outlines the common beliefs and misconceptions about grading practices while offering solutions and four key lessons: 1. By grading smarter, teachers can reduce their workloads; 2. we would do well to think more like coaches– looking for things we can do to move to the next level of performance– in effect, assessment of learning; 3. learning is more important than grades; and 4. relationships are crucial.

Dueck walks teachers through five key issues in re-thinking their pedagogy and assessment: grading, homework, unit plans, retesting and creativity.

As far as grading goes, Dueck asks teachers to think more carefully about the use of punitive grading; like zeroes and late penalties. Most importantly, he argues, despite the fact that these penalties rarely modify behaviour– the accuracy of the grading data is also compromised. We are now assessing behaviour, not the student’s ability to meet a learning target.

On a four point scale, where “A” = 4, “B” = 3, and so on, the zero is accurate, because the difference between the A, B, C, D and F are all equal– one point. But assigning a zero on a 100-point scale is a math error; it implies a 60-point difference between the D and the F, while the other differences are typically about 10 points. It makes missing a single assignment the “academic death penalty.” It’s not just unfair — it is not mathematically accurate.

(from Doug Reeves, 2010, p.11)

Dueck also tackles the issue of homework. Specifically: “…assignments designed to serve as a follow-up or practice usually designed to yield identical answers from every student.” (p.44) Many teachers rely on assigning homework because they believe that they are instilling a work ethic in today’s youth; the problem with this well-intended argument is that attaching a grade to homework inevitably leads to grading completion rather than understanding.

He provides excellent suggestions on unit planning, and how it is beneficial for both organizing teaching and learning. Unit plans offer students road maps to focus on where they are in their own learning. He wisely suggests that students also be provided with samples of what excellence looks like as they work to complete products of their own. He models key questions to help teachers make their own quality unit plans, while offering samples to lead the way.

He devotes his fourth chapter to retesting. In nearly every other area of the real world, he says, we embrace and celebrate mastery through repeated effort– so what are tests and exams meant to emulate? Testing can only give us information on a single moment in time, which can be affected by variables totally unrelated to the learning targets.

I was most impressed with how Dueck focuses throughout the book on the multitude of variables that affect learners and why a re-thinking of our practices are crucial. These include but are not limited to: socio-economic status; learning disabilities; chronic stress and anxiety; drug use and abuse; violence in the home; and a lack of nutritious food. It is evident that Dueck’s motivation is not simply about making grading easier for teachers, but rather has arisen from a place of caring deeply about the students he serves.

His final chapter focuses on creativity which he contends is: required to solve problems; needed in a world that rewards the unique; and helps students to develop autonomy.

The human condition is based on connection and socialization. As a species, we’ve been storytellers since long before the advent of the written word. We draw meaning from interaction more so than from homework or lectures (Geary, 2011). Research confirms that when people are spurred on by curiosity, they learn more (Engel, 2013), and when intrigue and surprise are added to the mix, they remember more (Engel, 2013; Garner, Brown, Sanders, & Menke, 1992).

(Dueck, p.121)

Educators, most especially in high school, would do well to spend some time with Dueck, and allow him to guide them through an examination of their own teaching and grading practices. He offers current research; rich examples and detailed work samples; and a multitude of personal story sidebars that reveal his benevolence for his students and his desire to create a classroom where they are met with success.

Book Snap #52

Title: The Sentence is Death

Author: Anthony Horowitz

Date Read: July 1, 2019

One and a half snaps

I don’t usually go for who-dunnits, but I am trying to explore different genres in my reading in order to better recommend titles to students.

Originally drawn in by the witty grammarian play on words in the title, I actually enjoyed trying to unravel this murder mystery alongside detective Daniel Hawthorne and his crime writing sidekick, Anthony Horowitz (our narrator).

A rich and elite lawyer, Richard Pryce, is found dead in his home, having been bashed over the head with a very expensive bottle of wine. While still on the phone with his partner the evening of his death, he opens the door to a guest and inquires, “it’s kind of late, isn’t it?” Who was the guest? The wine was a gift, but Richard himself didn’t drink. Oh, and the killer wrote 182 in large letters in green paint on his wall– what does it all mean?

There were many possible suspects– and I tried to narrow them down… but a great detective notices much more. A fun little read. See if you can figure out who killed Richard Pryce.

Book Snap #51

Title: Moxie

Author: Jennifer Mathieu

Date Read: June 23, 2019

Two Snaps.

Consider this a primer for young feminists.

Jennifer Mathieu drops us into Vivian Carter’s high school– and her high school looks a lot like high schools do– that’s not fiction. Trust me, I’ve been in high school for more than 20 years!

Vivian is tired of the singular focus on football, and the way it proffers entitlement for its boorish players. She is irritated by a dress code that focuses exclusively on what women wear, how they are targeted and surveyed by adults, and blamed for distracting their male peers. She is annoyed with the pervasive toxic masculinity that normalizes the sexual harassment of women: they yell out sexist comments at the girls (Make me a sandwich!) Which, as Vivian explains, insinuates that women best stay in the kitchen. They wear t-shirts with demeaning slogans (Great legs! When do they open?); play a game of bump n’ grab in the hallways (groping women’s bodies); and play host to a March Madness game where they rank and sort which of the girls is most fuckable.

So, yeah. Vivian is fed up with her small Texas town high school, and she decides to fight back.

Inspired by the momentos she finds in a box of her mother’s labelled: “My Misspent Youth,” Vivian starts a zine called Moxie in which she calls the girls in her school to action.

This book explores what it means to want fair and equal treatment; to feel safe in spaces; to be a good friend and ally; and to use our voices to speak up.

I expect to recommend this one a lot in the fall when I welcome ninth graders to my reading library. If you have young women in your life, give them a little moxie too!

Book Snap #50

Title: The Marrow Thieves

Author: Cherie Dimaline

Date Read: June 16, 2019

Two snaps.

In a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by global warming, Frenchie and his compatriots are on the run from the Recruiters.

Indigenous peoples have the one thing everyone else is missing: the ability to dream.

“We go to the schools and they leach the dreams from where our ancestors hid them, in the honeycombs of slushy marrow buried in our bones. And us? Well, we join our ancestors, hoping we left enough dreams behind for the next generation to stumble across.”

You will be compelled to draw parallels to Canadian Residential Schools, they are mentioned as past markers in the story, but serve to show how when a dominant group wants something– they will stop at nothing to get it. She moves our past into our future– making it impossible to look away.

Surely, readers can draw connections to our present reality and the plausibility and gravity of her story. For me, it brings to mind the environmental degradation caused by Canada’s oil sands and their emissions-intensive extraction process and destructive land use. Canada is also home to 75 percent of the world’s mining companies. And they don’t have a great record around the world. Murders, rapes, and beatings have been reported at mines owned by Canadian companies. They’re not doing so well on the environmental front either. Contamination of water bodies from tailings pond and dam failures has become commonplace. In B.C., wild salmon have been the backbone of Indigenous food systems for millennia. Much more recently, fish farms have begun popping up on the coast. They concentrate hundreds of thousands of fish in floating farms using open net pens. The farms breed pests and diseases like Infectious Salmon Anemia, sea lice, and Piscine Reovirus, and can pass those on to wild populations. Indigenous-led activists have attacked the industry for its effects on wild fish. I would be remiss to not also mention issues of violence against Indigenous women and the violation of Indigenous Peoples’ land rights.

“Indigenous peoples are being forced into long and costly court battles to defend their traditions and ways of life because governments in Canada still refuse to accept the need to work collaboratively with Indigenous peoples on important decisions about environmental protection and resource development,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs. “It’s ironic that the Committee report should come out in the midst of today’s court hearings into the Site C dam, a megaproject approved by the federal and province governments over the objections of First Nations and despite a highly critical environmental assessment.”

UN human rights report shows that Canada is failing Indigenous peoples
JULY 23, 2015

Dimaline’s novel is not entirely fiction. But it is essential reading.

Cherie Dimaline is a Canadian Métis writer. In The Marrow Thieves, she explores the continued colonial exploitation of Indigenous people and the land. She has received great acclaim for her novel: the Governor General’s Award for English-language children’s literature at the 2017 Governor General’s Awards and the 2017 Kirkus Prize in the young adult literature category. It was also a finalist in the CBC’s 2018 Canada Reads competition, successfully appealing beyond the YA category to adult readers in the competition.

Do read this one.

Book Snap #49

Title: Sadie

Author: Courtney Summers

Date Read: May 12, 2019

One and a half snaps.

This is a great YA read. What I liked the best was the interspersion of a podcast in which the presenter is trying to make sense of the disappearance of a young girl, Mattie, while Summers simultaneously provides the narrative from Sadie, her sister, who is hollowed by her sister’s death and on a mission to make sense of a botched investigation.

You can actually listen along to the fictional podcast while you read.

Check it out here:

Sadie is tormented by the intolerable town she lives in; a mother who never cared for her; men who came in and out of her mother’s life and ruined hers; and the unbearable grief of losing the sister she cared for as her own.

“But love is complicated, it’s messy. It can inspire selflessness, selfishness, our greatest accomplishments and our hardest mistakes. It brings us together and it can just as easily drive us apart.” 

Book Snap #48

Title: Brother

Author: David Chariandy

Date Read: April 19, 2019

One and a half snaps.

Because life got busy, and I didn’t sit to write a reflection on this novel as soon as I should have, perhaps it isn’t getting the best review either. This is a second novel for David Chariandy, and was featured in this years’ selections for CBC’s Canada Reads.

A touching story of a family living in Scarborough in the 1990s. The teens; Michael and Vincent, face prejudice as brown boys in The Park. Vincent is shy, sensitive and over-protective of his mother; while Michael is hardened and resolved. Their over-worked mother does her best to scrape enough together to care for her teenage boys.

It is beautifully written prose and illuminates the careless prejudices and low expectations that confront them as immigrants.

A tragic shooting changes all of their lives irrevocably and packs the real emotional punch of the novel.