Middle School: Get Me Out of Here! (James Patterson)

The more I think about it, the more sense it makes that James Patterson would venture into middle school territory. This is, after all, one of the scariest and more perplexing places on earth. 

In his first book of this series, Rafe Khatchadorian managed so survive his 6th grade year at Hills Village Middle. Barely. My favorite piece was that the skills Rafe uses (humorously...even teasingly) to cope during a hard year are the very traits that are part of who he is meant to be in life. In that way, the Middle School books are perfect for showing just how important these years are. This IS when kids are beginning to discover the things about themselves that they hate, sure, but more importantly, they are beginning to uncover the things about themselves that they like. 

In this second installment, Rafe is in art school and loving it. Finally he is in a place where he feel comfortable just being him! Then, of course, because this is a school and there are other kids involved, the bullying and misunderstanding and rule-breaking begins...and all from quite unexpected sources. 

I was a smidge bored with this one the first half because it seemed to be following the same exact pattern as the first book. Misfit kid makes up game as a coping mechanism, which will obviously land him in trouble with his peers as well as the powers-that-be in his school.

Patterson is better than this was my analytical echo throughout every chapter. About two thirds into it, however, things got good quick. My hope for readers is that they'll not be bored by the repetition so long that they lose interest before they hit the hook. Interesting format, though it smells similar to Andrew Clements's typical fiction setup. 

The only thing still driving me nuts about this series is how in the world to pronounce the main character's name. Is it Rahhhf, Raf or Rafey (a as in bat), Raf or Rafey (a as in rake), what?

Even the Google doesn't know.

I haven't been this confused since reading the first three Harry Potters and pronouncing Hermione as (Hermeeeown). {hanging my head in shame}

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Black Like Me (John Howard Griffin)

Black Like Me (50th Anniversary Edition)



Every once in a while a book dances across my path that renders me utterly speechless. Griffin's Black Like Me is one such work. Hard as I try, I'll fail to do this one justice...but try, still I will.

I'll be researching more about this John Howard Griffin in order to affirm or re-evaluate my initial opinion that he's pretty much an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. At this point in my knowledge of him, he seems to have been a major protagonist in the development of social justice for black Americans. For all Americans, really.

I'm sort of furious that we didn't read this book in high school.

Griffin's book was written in the late 50s and is about an experiment he performed to discover if and how there were differences in the ways black and white men in the South were treated. In 1957, he decided to medically darken his skin so that he looked like a black man. This book chronicles his experiences in a string of Deep South cities from New Orleans over to Atlanta, including stops in Mobile, Montgomery, and Biloxi. For six weeks, Griffin ventured into each city alternating between white Griffin and "Negro Griffin."

*It was 1957. The words "Negro" and "n*****" were used commonly and crudely. They're all over this book. I won't censor direct quotes, as that would detract from historical accuracy. Personally, however, I am rather uncomfortable using the terms even in this setting.

Obviously, he encountered rather poor treatment when he was black. The book details the stress of being harassed by white teenagers, his inability to get a job, and a bile-rising string of depraved questions from white men regarding very intimate details of black men's personal relationships. Once the experiment ended, Griffin's personal knowledge led to him becoming a common guest to meetings with leaders of both races (some separate, others mixed) who were seeking ways to bring peace and justice to the country. He writes of criticism on both sides of mistakes made during this critical time period.

Normally a good book means a few marked pages or highlights/notes in my Kindle. This may tell you something about the number of penetrating statements within this book.



I won't list them all, and for the sake of reasonableness, I've limited myself to the five most profound.

"The Negro. The South. These are details. The real story is the universal one of men who destroy the souls of other men (and in the process destroy themselves) for reasons neither really understands. It is the story of the persecuted, the defrauded, the feared, and detested. I could have been a Jew in Germany, a Mexican in a number of states, or a member of any 'inferior' group. Only the details would have differed. The story would be the same." (Preface)

"I learned a strange thing- that in a jumble of unintelligible talk, the word 'n*****' leaps out with electric clarity. You always hear it and it always stings. And always it casts the person using it into a category of brute ignorance. I thought with some amusement that if these two women only knew what they were revealing to every Negro on that bus, they would have been outraged." (Pg. 21)

"My revulsion turned to grief that my own people could give the hate stare, could shrivel men's souls, could deprive humans of rights they unhesitatingly accord their livestock." (Pg. 67)

"The white man's fears have been widely broadcast. To the Negro, these fears of 'intermingling' make no sense. All he can see is that the white man wants to hold him down- to make him live up to his responsibilities of taxpayer and soldier, while denying him the privileges of a citizen." (Pg. 121)

"Too many of the more militant leaders are preaching Negro superiority. I pray that the Negro will not miss his chance to rise to greatness, to build from the strength gained through his past suffering and, above all, to rise beyond vengeance." (Pg. 164)

Look, I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I won't even begin to pretend I understand the scope of what happened in this country during the civil rights movement. I could never fully grasp the complexity of all sides involved. I do pay close attention to this part of our history, perhaps because mine is a transracial family and maybe because I believe social justice is essential to the liberty of our great land.

Black Like Me is the can opener many people need to crack our minds wide enough to consider the intricacy of racial tensions and issues, both past and present.

*Please view disclosure statement at bottom of page.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie)


Born "with water on the brain," 14 year old Junior is seizure-prone and poor as dirt. Here he tells the story of life on his Spokane Indian reservation, in all its shocking and gut-wrenching glory. Junior's physical issues and desire for a different life cause him to be something of a target on the "rez," and before long he finds himself enrolled at Reardan, the closest mostly white high school. Violence, cruelty, alcoholism, racism, and tragedy are normal daily occurrences for Junior; though his voice is laden with wit and charm, still the book is peppered with negative stereotypes about the Native American culture.

The oppressive poverty is the worst, and the root of all the other issues. Junior's take:

"It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it. Poverty doesn't give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor."  (pg. 13)

Though it is overrun with stereotypes, the difference for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is that as the narrator, Junior is a funny yet deeply self-reflective Native American. He describes experiences with his culture that cannot be disputed by those of another race. Another consideration is that through use of Junior’s very strong, specific voice, these stereotypes are brought to light to reveal their complex combination of truth and utter ridiculousness.

Because it is so heavy laden with negative stereotypes, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian may at first seem a risk to young readers in promoting the very untrue notion that Native Americans are inferior to other ethnicities. Because of the way Alexie tells Junior’s story, the novel does more good than harm in the realm of typecasts. Awareness of the stereotypes and disputing the untruths promotes the integrity of the Native American culture. Young readers without experience in or with the Native American culture will be surprised at what Junior has to say about his life, but one of the most essential qualities of great literature is that it brings awareness to and appreciation of cultures different from our own. 

I Have a Dream (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

In this book, fifteen winners of the Coretta Scott King Award come together to illustrate Dr. King's most famous oratory in its entirety. Each page illustrates a section of his "I Have a Dream" speech that was given on the steps of the Lincoln monument on August 28,1963. It is a brilliant work, giving readers a visual connection to the events that had taken place to inspire Dr. King's speech.

My favorite line from each page:
-I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
-This momentous decree [the Emancipation Proclamation] came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering justice.
-But one hundred years later...the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination...
-When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir....It is obvious today that America has defaulted on the promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned....But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.
-This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.
-There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.
-Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.
-We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality...We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto into a larger one.
-We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating, "For Whites Only."
-You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.
-I have a dream one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed - we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
-I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
-I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with words of interposition and nullification, one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!
-With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
-...And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children - black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics - will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

After slowly reading through the book, I then located the audio of Dr. King's speech online, and read it again, this time listening to this great man deliver his speech. And I cannot tell you how moving it is. Over and over I got chills, hearing the passion of Dr. King and the people whose voices are heard cheering in the background. Especially as the mother to two daughters, one who is white and one who is Ugandan American, the line about little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers is especially moving to me. Thank God for Dr. King and others who had the courage to stand up for freedom!

There is a special foreword written by Coretta Scott King. Her comments are the book include the following quote:
"His vision of peace with justice and love for everyone still inspires and challenges us to create the beloved community. His legacy of courage, determination, and nonviolence still lights the way to the fulfillment of his dream. May God give us the wisdom and strength to carry forward his unfinished work."

Amen and amen.

Listen to Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech here.

Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins)


Surely by now the Capitol has realized that by messing with Katniss Everdeen, they have messed with the wrong girl? 

Apparently not. 

Even though she survived her first Hunger Games, Katniss has been brought back for another round. The trivial matter of lifetime immunity has been brushed aside by the bloodthirsty savages in the Capitol. Interestingly enough, when Katniss emerged as a winner in her first Hunger Games, she began a spark of rebellion in the people of the districts that just may propel them all to freedom. With every subsequent victory, she grows in popularity as the symbolic leader of the insurrection against the Capitol. 

Interestingly enough, a key element in the success of the rebellions involves Katniss and Peeta's exploration of a romance...and no one, not even the two of them, can decipher its authenticity. 

Catching Fire was irrefutably substandard to Hunger Games, but an essential stepping stone to the phenomenal conclusion of Katniss and Peeta in Mockinjay. Stay tuned!