Review: Sticks and Stones

Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Emily Bazelon. Random House 2013. Random House Audio 2013. Reviewed from borrowed copy of audiobook. Making this part of my “vacation reads” series, figuring most of my readers who work in schools are on vacation now or soon will be!

It’s About: Bullying: it’s all over the news. The terrible way children and teens are treated by their peers, both in the “real world” and online via cyber-bullying.

Bazelon looks at bullying in depth: what it is, what people think it is, the way it’s been treated in the news, the manner that anti-bullying classes are incorporated into schools. She does so by examining the stories of three students in detail, as well as taking a historical look at the study of bullying and how children interact with each other.

The Good: A must-read, nuanced examination of what “bullying” is, and isn’t, especially the difference between “drama” (conflicts between kids) and “bullying.” The definition of bullying Bazelon uses (from research by Dan Olweus): “it had to be verbal or physical abuse, it had to repeat over time, and it had to involve an imbalance of power.” “Drama,” because it doesn’t involve that power (or has shifting power dynamics), is a more common occurrence, but still should be taken seriously. Bullying is also “a behavior that peaks in middle school, continues to some degree in high school, and then declines significantly in college.

What to do about bullying and drama? Sticks and Stones looks at how the culture of a school matters, and what anti-bullying programs work and why. Most important? Creating a school culture that doesn’t reward bullying or drama. Creating such a culture is neither easy nor simple; it’s not about a one-time assembly.

Easy or simple: the biggest take-away I had from Sticks and Stones is that bullying (and drama) isn’t easy or simple. Easy or simple reactions or solutions at best, don’t work, or at worst, create a worse problem. Is a bully best served by suspension or being expelled, or is he or she best served by helping them have empathy and other skills to not bully? Add that assumes that the situation is indeed bullying, and not drama between two equals (or two kids with varying degrees of power, depending on the time and situation.) “Drama” has it’s own issues, yes, but since resolving personal conflict is a much-needed skill for adults, part of childhood drama has to be children and teens working it out without adult intervention.

The second biggest take-away? The issue of mental health and children and teens. Some of the reason for the decline in bulling seems to be about the growing maturity of those involved, both in terms of greater empathy and in greater skills to combat or ignore it. Put empathy and awareness aside, there remains the mental health of both the bully and the victim. A child may bully because of underlying mental health issues; a victim may react in ways because they are already fragile because of their mental health.

The third take-away? Bazelon talks about creating a culture of empathy within schools. As I see and observe behavior in media — in TV shows, or in comments sections, or in politics — I think a bigger culture of empathy is needed.

I would like to say more: about the programs discussed, the children Bazelon interviews, the situations examined. Sticks and Stones is so nuanced, and Bazelon’s treatment is such, that I don’t want to give bite size, simplistic confusions. Just, this: Sticks and Stones is a must-read, which offers much to the reader in terms of how best to work with children and teens and what programs to use in schools. Part of the reason I decided to post this now at the beginning of summer vacation for many schools is I think it will give readers who work in schools time to think and plan for what they will do at the start of the next school year. Also, while Sticks and Stones focuses on children and teens, I’d also say it gives a structure for analysis for adults who encounter their own situations involving bullying and/or drama.

Further reading: Defining Bullying, a The New York Times op-ed by Emily Bazelon; review at The New York Times; review at S. Krishna’s Books; Interview with Emily Bazelon at NPR; Can We Really Stop Bullying at Slate. Edited to add The Power of Empathy: Q & A with Emily Bazelon at SLJ.

Review: Ghetto Cowboy

Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri. Candlewick. 2011. Audio: Candlewick on Brilliance Audio. 2011. Narrated by JD Jackson. Odyssey Honor Book.

The Plot:  Twelve year old Cole’s mother doesn’t know what to do with Cole. He’s cut so much school that he may be left back, he’s getting into trouble, there’s nothing else for her to try  — so she drives from Detroit to Philadelphia, to leave him with the father he hasn’t seen since he was an infant.

Northwest Philly is just like Detroit… Except for the horses. Horses? In the city? And his father is one of the people who rides and takes care of horses? Impossible, thinks Cole: cowboys don’t live in cities. Cowboys aren’t black. His father can’t be a cowboy!

Except his father is a cowboy. Cole is about to learn some lessons: about life, about family, about horses. And about cowboys.

The Good: JD Jackson’s narration was excellent! I felt like Cole was right there in the car with me, telling me his story.

Cole, his mother, and his father are all stubborn. Cole is skipping school and getting into trouble, even though he’s smart enough to know better. His mother was stubborn enough to exclude Cole’s father from their lives and, now that she fears that her son is on a path that she is powerless to stop, is stubborn enough to drive him from Detroit to Philadelphia to a man he doesn’t know, in a last ditch effort to put Cole on a better path. Cole’s father is stubborn enough that when Cole’s mother took her infant son and left, he let them go. Cole is stubborn in his reluctance to see anything positive about the stranger that is his father.

Cole may be stubborn, but he’s not so stubborn to let pride or anger get in his way. Despite himself, he is curious about these “ghetto cowboys,” and learns a bit about their history and culture. Cole connects to one of the horses, and that connection, becoming responsible for another’s well being and safety, gives him a positive place to put his stubbornness, his independence, his strength and intelligence. It’s not just caring for a horse: it’s fighting for them. Cole’s visit to his father coincides with a city crack down on such urban stables, which threatens both the stables, their horses, and their riders, but also the positive contributions those cowboys and stables make to their local communities.

I love learning about subcultures; here, learning about cowboys in cities. Who knew? I didn’t! As G. Neri explains in a guest post at Cynthia Leitich Smith’s blog, Cynsations, the ghetto cowboy plot is based on real life. There really are such stables! Before this book, when I heard “horse” I thought of two types of people. Wealthy people, who can afford to buy and care for a horse. Or people in the country, who work with horses. This opened up my eyes to a bigger world.

Because I loved Cole. Because JD Jackson’s narration made me feel like this was happening around me. Because I am fascinated by these cowboys. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Guys Lit Wire; Finding Wonderland; The Happy Nappy Bookseller; Girls in the Stacks (with author interview).

Review: Ashes

Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick. Egmont USA. Brilliance Audio. 2011. Review copies from publisher. Listened to audio. Narrated by Katherine Kellgren.

The Plot: One minute, Alex is hiking, trying to figure out her future and deal with her past. Sounds typical for a seventeen year old, but her future is complicated by an inoperable brain tumor and her past by the death of her parents four years before.

An electromagnetic pulse changes that.

Suddenly, the world changes.

No electronics are working. Alex find herself responsible for Ellie, an angry eight year old who just saw her grandfather die from the pulse. At first, they think the dangers they face are low supplies, a rough trek to the ranger’s station, and wild dogs.

Then they return into two teenagers. Unlike Alex and Ellie, these kids are changed. They eat flesh. Human flesh.

Alex and Ellie find another survivor, Tom, who hasn’t changed, and band together to figure out what happened and what to do next. Along the way, the encounter other survivors and discover that most teens have become wild flesh-eaters. In response, the surviving seniors are not welcoming towards kids they suspect may change any moment.

Should they head to a big city? Somewhere with less people? Would a military base be safe? Or have any towns survived?

Alex finds herself in the town of Rule, which appears to offer safety. She discovers flesh-eating teens and armed bandits aren’t the only things to worry about.

The Good: So many things!

There is Alex. Her father was a police officer; her mother, a doctor; and both enjoyed camping. The type of camping that meant teaching their only daughter survivalist-type skills: she knows how to make a debris shelter, what to do to make water drinkable, can read maps and knows her way around a gun. If anyone can survive the end of the world as we know it, it’s Alex.

One of the things I liked about at Alex? At times, I didn’t like her. She’s in a hurt, bitter, selfish place at the beginning of the story. Her parents are dead, she’s taken their ashes, her own future is bleak because of the brain tumor, she’s gone through years of treatment, she doesn’t even have a sense of smell anymore. There is more than a hint that she brought her father’s gun with her for more than protection.

When the pulse happens, Alex is thinking of herself, not Ellie, and acts accordingly. Keep in mind, at this point Ellie is challenging her fear, anger and grief into stubborness and whining. In short: she’s a brat. Honestly? At this stage, Alex is so caught up in herself that she doesn’t handle the situation well. That’s OK; she’s only seventeen. An important part of the story is Alex’s own progress from an understandably self-centered teen to someone who thinks about others. It’ s not just that, of course. Whether by her own hand or not, Alex was preparing for death. Now, she’s fighting to stay alive/

Alex and Ellie meet Tom, a young soldier on leave. The situation means Alex begins to think about others: hey, there’s nothing like fighting for survival to bond people together.

Alex’s brain tumor had affected her physically. After the pulse? Those symptoms go away. Not only can she smell; she has a super sense of smell. Is that why she wasn’t turned into a flesh-eater? Why wasn’t Tom? Alex tries to figure it out, based on what she knows of the handful of teens who didn’t change. Tom had nightmares from his time in the middle east; does that mean anything?

About halfway through, the book changes from one of adventurist survival to a different type of survival. Alex finds herself in the town of Rule, a place that has survived fairly intact and safe. She finds out it’s not as safe as it appears to be. I’ll be honest, for some reason I had an easier time believing in the flesh-eating teens than I did in Rule. I understand that society would change because of the pulse, the deaths, the flesh eaters; but it seems like Rule had always been — different. Controlled by a handful of families. Religious, but not quite like any traditional religion. It didn’t help that the story is told from Alex’s point of view, so all I know about Rule is what Alex knows or what she guesses.

The narration is terrific! Kellgren kept me on the edge of my seat. I listen to audiobooks during my commute (roughly an hour each way), and sometimes I had to just sit for a few minutes to calm down.

Ashes is the first book in a trilogy. It ends with a shocking reveal and a “how are you going to get out of this one” cliffhanger. I have a feeling that some of the things that frustrate or confuse me about Rule will be revealed. I can’t wait to read the next book!

Other reviews: Presenting Lenore and GalleySmith Joint Discussion; S. Krishna’s Books; Stacked; The Book Smugglers

Review: Tell Me A Secret

Tell Me A Secret by Holly Cupala. HarperTeen. 2010. Audiobook by Octopuppy. 2010. Narrated by Jenna Lamia. Reviewed from audiobook from author. Available from Audible.

The Plot: Miranda — Rand — is the good daughter. Xanda — dead Xanda, whose name isn’t spoken aloud by her family — was the bad daughter, the daughter of late nights and fast boys and cars, until the accident that took her life five years ago. Xanda had secrets that Rand could only wonder at; Xanda had a life that seemed exotic and wonderful. Who Xanda was, and her death, has shaped Rand and fractured her family. Rand was twelve then; she is now the age Xanda was.

Five years later, Rand has a secret of her own.

She’s pregnant.

This secret will force Rand and her family to finally look at the truth about themselves, about Xanda, and about her death.

The Good: Rand tells the story, and Jenna Lamia, the audiobook narrator, does a terrific job of conveying Rand’s confusion and hopes and fears. The reader does not always get the whole story. For example, in Rand’s eyes, Xanda seems the perfect older sister: perfect in a “she’s too cool to live” way. This, however, is not the whole story, not the whole Xanda, and glimpses of the real sister bleed through Rand’s thoughts and memories.

Rand broke my heart. No, that’s not right. It’s not that Rand broke my heart; honestly, at times I just wanted to give her a shake and say “snap out of it!” (More on that later). What broke my heart was just how many people failed Rand, especially the people that Rand should have been able to rely on. It would have been nice if the people in her life, her parents and friends, had supported her, been there for her, helped her. But, then, this would have been a different book. Instead, it’s a book about secrets and the damage they do, especially the secrets about ourselves that we keep from ourselves. Rand may think her secret is her pregnancy, but the real secret is she’s not being honest with herself about her choices, the choices she made in living up to the image of a dead girl.

Rand keeps much to herself, not in an unfriendly way but in a not sharing what she’s thinking or feeling way. Maybe that is her nature. Maybe it’s because her mother raised her children with a “be careful what the neighbors will think” attitude, so Rand keeps her true self secret so that the neighbors will only see her outer self. Whatever the reason, Rand often stays silent when she could speak up and should speak up. Take, for instance, her boyfriend Kamram and her pregnancy. She loves him; she doesn’t know how to tell him. So she doesn’t. She delays, and delays, and delays. And because of that, she also distances herself from him. On the one hand, she tells the reader about her love for him and their wonderful relationship, and on the other, Rand also says it’s been almost a week since she’s spoken to him. Rand doesn’t seem to be able to put the pieces together, that either she and Kamram are not the couple she thinks they are, or that she is sending him mixed signals about what she thinks and feels. He’s not a mind-reader, I wanted to tell her. Thinking about him, loving him, wanting him, is not enough if you’re not calling him. I understood why she didn’t; I understood why she delayed. Understanding Rand just made it that much worse.

It would have been easy for Tell Me A Secret to be all about how family and friends fail Rand. Tell Me A Secret takes the harder road, the better road, by making the failures mutual. This is not a sob-fest about poor, pregnant Rand (even though I did cry at times because of all that happened to poor, pregnant Rand. Hey, I don’t have a heart of stone!). Rand doesn’t always realize it, and the reader may take some time for recognition to sink in, but Rand isn’t innocent, and not just in getting pregnant or delaying telling anyone. She does a few things that really shifts the perception of what happened, so that some of what her friends did and did not do make more sense. And here is what I liked best about Tell Me A Secret (if one can say “like” about something so sad): people fail Rand, and Rand fails herself, and Rand fails others, and it’s an endless cycle, it seems, of expectations and being let down. It would be nice if people were always kind and compassionate and understanding. It would be nice if people could see beyond their own needs and hurts and wants. But that’s not the world that Rand lives in; and I’m sure that for many readers, it’s not their world, either. By the end, Rand doesn’t let these failings define herself; she doesn’t let it control her future.

Review: The Piper’s Son

Today the One Shot World Book Tour is: Book City! The list of participating blogs is over at Chasing Ray.

I’ve chosen a city I’ve never been to, but, because of the author’s books, I feel like I have: Sydney, Australia, as depicted in Melina Marchetta’s book, most recently, The Piper’s Son.

So, here is my review; and don’t forget to head over to Chasing Ray for the complete list of books in this Book City tour!

The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta. Candlewick. 2011. Candlewick on Brilliance 2011. Read by Michael Finney. Reviewed from audio from Brilliance.

Do I double dip? Yes, I double dip. I reviewed The Piper’s Son in February; and just listened to it on audio. So, this is the audio review.

The Plot: For those who don’t click through to my original review, two years ago Tom Finch Mackee had it all: a girl he’d spent one and a half wonderful nights with; good friends; a large, loving family. Now, he’s pursuing oblivion through drugs and alcohol and hasn’t spoken to family and friends in months.

Two years ago,  his Uncle Joe was alive. Two years ago, Joe hadn’t been blown up on his way to work. Two years ago, the family hadn’t buried an empty coffin.

Can Tom find his way — if not back to who he was two years ago, can he find his way to a Tom who doesn’t hide from the grief and pain of Joe’s loss, and his family splintering, and of messing things so badly with Tara Finke that she and their mutual friends can barely say hello to him?

The Good: While, for me, Tom’s emotional journey of putting his life back together, still broken but together, is what resonates with me. For others who, say, may want more action? Here’s the pitch: Two years ago Tom had a one and a half  night stand with a girl he loved and after, treated her so badly that not only won’t she talk to him, she has left the country. When you’ve treated someone horribly, is it possible to fix it?

Finney’s Australian accent emphasizes the setting of The Piper’s Son; the slang, the city, even the music. It’s the city setting — Sydney, Australia — that made this my pick for this One Shot – Cities tour. The Piper’s Son was on the shortlist for the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature, (alas, it didn’t win)and their judges comments explain perfectly why I picked this for its city setting: “This is the eagerly awaited sequel to Saving Francesca, and Marchetta creates a fresh and vibrant story that focuses on Sydney’s inner city suburbs and the life of a young and out of work musician, Tom Mackee. Homeless and haunted by the death of his favourite uncle in a terrorist bombing in London, Tom desperately seeks to put his life back together by re-establishing ties with his aunt, his friends, and his long separated father. For him, it is a long and very hard road. Marchetta’s insightful narration and wonderful cast of characters take her readers on an always fascinating ride through the gritty, pulsating streets of the city’s inner west. The story culminates in an emotional and memorable conclusion.” More on the inner city inspiration at this interview with Marchetta.

Tom’s parents and their friends made a deliberate decision to remain in Sydney’s inner city instead of move out to the suburbs, a decision led by his father, Dom: “All the people they wanted in their lives lived within a ten-mile radius. Her brother Dom had started the vow of not moving away from each other just because they’d be able to afford bigger houses in the outer suburbs. “Let’s stick together, no matter how poky our houses are,” he had made them all promise. “Better to be able to pick up each other’s kids and hang out together than have bigger backyards and rumpus rooms.”

The neighborhood, the Sydney neighborhood, is as much a character in The Piper’s Son as any person. So much so, that someone later observes that Tom himself has never moved out of it, always living within a few blocks of friends and family. “You could draw a line around the parameters of your world, Tom.”

Things I noticed about The Piper’s Son this time around: the craft of the book, how it’s all put together, how Marchetta weaves the past and the present together, and her use of different points of view to tell the whole story.

Coming of age books are usually about independence; in the hands of another, The Piper’s Son would be look at how people failed Tom, cast those adults as villains, and ended with Tom in a new place, with new friends, and a new direction in life. Marchetta recognizes that life is messier and more complex than that; people failed Tom, and each other, because each, individually, was so torn apart and hurt by Joe’s death that they could barely take care of themselves let alone anyone else. The Piper’s Son is about the role of community in one’s life; for Tom to mature, to grow, he has to once again become part of a community of friends and family. The goal is healthy interdependence, not independence. The friends and family that grow around the Finch Mackee family is so wonderful, funny, and loving, that even though sadness and hurt and grief have touched them, and none of them have had an easy time, I still want to go to their homes, hang out over a bottle of wine, laugh as the children play in the garden. If I’m every in Australia, I want to walk these Sydney streets.

Yes, this remains a Favorite Book Read in 2011.

And yes, I listened to this on the way to and from work and cried every day.