Monthly Archives: September 2011

Sizing things up

Hanging Chads

The big question was, how do I keep the kids engaged with the reading choice and not plunge into squabbling over every title?

When I first started my book discussion Novel Thoughts (oh! those many years ago), I just couldn’t imagine spending time every month debating with the kids about what book we should read next.  It would be self indulgent to suggest only books that I liked or thought were good.  Meanwhile, if I left it solely up to the kids they could only offer suggestions of titles they have already read.  (I shudder to imagine how many times we would have “discussed” Harry Potter.)

I no long remember the eureka moment, but trust me, it was a stroke of genius.

Use democracy, dear Watson!  Every four months I create a ballot and they vote.  I get to decide what’s on the ballot – they decide what we read.  Perfect!

Except now, after more than seven years, I dread this part of the process.  I spend the better part of a day (or two) configuring a new ballot.

Here’s how it works:  each ballot is divided into four genre categories.  These change from ballot to ballot.  This time the categories are Historical Fiction, Mystery, Contemporary, and Science Fiction.  For each genre I include three titles: one with a female narrator, one a male, and then a novel that includes a mixed group of protagonists.  Each contending title includes a summary straight from our online catalog.

The kids read the summaries and vote on one title from each of the genres.

Easier said then done.  While the premise is fairly simple, finding three science fiction titles, for example, with a range of narrators that would make for good discussions can be darn right difficult.  And there’s another element I haven’t mentioned yet – page count.

In order to have a decent discussion the majority of the participants need to be able to finish the book.  And let’s face it, schoolwork needs to come first, so the book cannot be overwhelmingly long.  Publishers just don’t seem to consider this.  Nearly every science fiction title that seemed to fit all the other perimeters ended up being well over 300 pages!  I’m not alone in this struggle; see blogger Jonathan Hunt”s rant Is This Absolutely Necessary  over at the School Library Journal.

After seven years the Novel Thoughts group has discussed 88 titles!  Finding new and fresh titles, fewer than 300 pages, with enough copies to borrow from area libraries; across a range of gender interests is really a remarkable challenge.  I’m relieved that say that it only took me about 4 hours to accomplish today.  I can relax for another four months.

And the real beauty of the whole thing – no discussion!  It’s a silent ballot, a drumroll revelation and then sweet acceptance of the decision.

The Dragon of Cripple Creek

The Dragon of Cripple Creek                          by Troy Howell                                                   I recommend this for 5th-8th grade readers.

Katlin, her father and brother, Dillon, are driving west in hopes of making it to San Francisco in time for Dad to start a new job.  They were living the ideal upper class, suburban life until Katlin’s mother had an accident that has left her in a coma.  Her continuing care and mounting bills have cost Dad his job and bankrupted the family.

Katlin has a serious obsession with all things gold – gold shoes, gold jewelry, golden-haired ponies.  When she sees a road sign advertising the Mollie Kathleen Gold Mine in Cripple Creek, Colorado, Katlin begs her father to stop, “Can’t we do one fun thing?”

Once on a tour of the mine, Katlin follows her obsession away from the group and falls down an old shaft.  And this is when she meets Ye, the last living dragon.   Ye is wise, experienced and enjoys a bit of witty repartee.  Kat is scared, excited (not only by all the gold lying around), and smitten with Ye.

Once Ye shows her the way out of the mine, Katlin’s mission is to keep the dragon’s existence a secret.  This is, of course, nearly impossible when her disappearance – and miraculous reappearance – are the biggest thing to hit Cripple Creek since gold was discovered in 1891.

Howell spends most of the novel exploring the aspects of keeping a dragon secret from the world and he really doesn’t miss much.  This is a solidly imagined bit of magical realism.  He wraps things up neatly and satisfied my emotional need for Kat’s family to get everything they need in the end.  On the other hand, once I met Ye, I wanted a lot more time with him!  I don’t have much to criticize but I must admit that I didn’t find the book as much fun as I had hoped.