Wednesday, April 19, 2006

8 YA Titles I Stand Behind 100%

I recently completed a class with instructor Heidi Hammond on young adult literature. We read roughly 1, 000, 000, 000 books, and here are my recommendations from that pool:

  1. America (2002) by E. R. Frank - This book is a beautiful and heart-wrenching tale of a boy in the system. America is shuffled from foster home to mental health treatment facility, raging against the world, until he finally finds something that works - therapy. This is a hard read because it doesn't sugar coat nor edit out some pretty harsh realities. "Worth it," however, doesn't even scratch the surface.
  2. The Boy Who Saved Baseball (2003) by John Ritter - This is a feel good that really does just that. An old-fashioned Southwestern hero named Cruz de la Cruz shows up just in the nick of time to help a sorry, small town baseball team save the town's historic character from land developers. Even a jaded sports cynic could not resist the beauty of Ritter's language nor the charm of this small town.
  3. A Step from Heaven (2001) by An Na - Young Ju immigrates from Korea to the United States when she's still a little too young to understand what that really means. Her school years are lived on the border between languages, cultures, and loyalties. For me, the highlight was the exploration of how language can be structured to portray that challenge of learning to communicate in a different medium.
  4. Skellig (1999) by David Almond - The sweet story of a premature baby's family, a pair of unlikely friends, and angles in their many incarnations. When Michael finds a smelly, living mummy in the garage of his new house, so begins an exploration between science and metaphysics that will challenge and touch readers of any age to question what is probable and what is possible.
  5. Briar Rose (1992) by Jane Yolen - This cross between a fairy tale and a Holocaust story brings two familiar themes together in a perfect pairing. When Becca's aged immigrant grandmother dies, this young reporter crosses the ocean and revisits a tragic history to uncover the story of her grandmother's life and her family history. The gay hero who survived a concentration camp didn't hurt when it came to winning me over, either. . .
  6. The House of the Scorpion (2002) by Nancy Farmer - This is the science fiction that teens deserve - smart, layered, political, well-written. Matt is the clone of Matteo Alacran, a drug lord who helps to rule the country of Opium, located along what was once the U.S./Mexico border. But with El Patron several centuries old already, there is bound to be a changing of the guard sooner or later. . .
  7. The Race to Save the Lord-God Bird (2004) by Phillip Hoose - At last a book about a bird that you don't have to be an ornithologist to love. With a liberal dose of U.S. history and a bevy of black and white illustrations, this book sets out to place the struggle against extinction of the ivory billed woodpecker in fascinating context. By the end, if you aren't rooting for this underdog, you had better check to make sure your heart is pumping blood.
  8. Hole in My Life (2002) by Jack Gantos - This book has it all: a famous children's author, literature, drug smuggling, prison, adventure on the high seas. This autobiography reads like A Million Little Pieces, full of sin and redemption, downward spirals and happy upswings. Of course, this one is actually the truth (or what commonly goes by that name). Following the narrator through his late teens may or may not drive home a lesson, but it does make for a great story.
  9. Persepolis (2003) by Marjane Satrapi - The story of a spunky girl from a progressive, educated family trying to grow up in the midst of the Iranian revolution. No easy task when your school goes fundamentalist, family friends are jailed and tortured for having "bad politics," and bombs are falling on your block. Did I mention it's in starkly simple, black-and-white graphic novel format.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Harambee's Media Center

Harambee ( is the K-6 school in Minnesota's East Metro Integration District, a magnet program pulling students from St. Paul and its surrounding suburbs. An open school in structure and practice if not in name, classrooms are multi-age and collaborate a lot within levels. The school has environmental and global focuses, with students getting specialist instruction in both. Students have hand-on science instruction in the many acres and various Minnesota biomes connected to the school. Not only is the student body truly diverse, but celebration of cultural diversity is abundantly evident throughout the facility. In short, I am seriously contemplating living in St. Paul when I have kids ready for school just so they can go to Harambee!

I recently observed the media specialist, Debra Watson. The huge, open media center ( is the first thing you see through a wall of windows upon entering the school. Low shelves throughout increase the spacious feeling, and culturally diverse displays create a lot of visual interest. There is a large presentation space, clusters of computer station, and a multi-leveled, carpeted area for reading and instruction. Ms. Watson's teaching area looks well-used, with student work, teaching materials, and book displays that reflect what students are reading. This media center is the heart of the school and a welcoming environment that encourages student use.