Huck Finn Reviewed: Tears and Flapdoodle

01_top10censoredbooks_huck-finnThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1884/1885

Where should I start? Adventure story. Coming of age story. Hilarious satire. Cruel slapstick. Failed exploration of the South’s racist culture. Successful representation of Southern dialects. Great American novel. Insult to descendants of enslaved Africans.

Really, you can say almost anything about Twain’s novel, and most people have. Banned within a year of its publication (by the Concord, Massachusetts, Public Library), it’s been on many lists of challenged, censored, or banned books since then, mostly due to Twain’s use of “coarse language” (i.e., racial epithets). Twenty years ago, Jane Smiley pitted Twain’s novel against Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Twain lost (see her article here). Smiley’s argument focuses on Twain’s treatment of Jim, an escaped slave traveling downriver with Huck.

Huck, a child of the south, wrestles through much of his journey with the issue of stealing someone else’s property — in this case, Jim. Huck needs time with Jim to begin to see the man as a man, as someone who gets hungry and frightened, who shows courage, loyalty, and kindness, and who misses his wife and children just like a white man. Eventually, and to the reader’s relief, Huck decides his friendship with Jim is more important than following any property laws, and he decides to help Jim escape, even if it means going to hell.

This much Smiley supports. What she objects to is what happens to Jim in the latter part of the novel, when Tom Sawyer shows up and takes over the rescue of Jim, being held until his owners can claim him. And I have to admit to feeling exasperated with Tom’s shenanigans at the end of the novel, which not only prolong Jim’s captivity, but add discomfort and even danger to his situation. Most readers, in fact, feel that the Tom Sawyer section diminishes the book’s impact.

What’s valuable in it, beyond the humor, is Huck and Jim’s idyll on the Mississippi: days and nights of floating quietly along, with time to appreciate sky and land and water, almost as though they were the sole audience of a glorious spectacle. And all this time, Huck is learning something that surprises him when he wakes up to it: that Jim’s freedom and happiness are invaluable.


How far would you go …

9780192733672… to get a copy of a book?

I’ve been wanting to read Julia Lee’s The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth since it was published in 2013 (Oxford University Press), but for some reason it was not available in the US. Why oh why hasn’t OUP done something to resolve that?

Fortunately, I had a trip planned to the UK this summer, and as soon as I arrived I got a copy and sat down to read it. After finishing, I ask, once again, why oh why is this book not in bookstores in the US? It’s the perfect kid-in-jeopardy book, with a dauntless heroine, creepy villains, and madcap sidekicks that will appeal to middle school and younger readers. (A few second-hand copies are available on Amazon, but that’s not quite the same.)

Clemency Wrigglesworth, 11 years old and alone, is sailing back to England from India. Her mother, who died just before embarking, left Clemency with no money or any idea where they were meant to go upon arrival in Southampton. Two letters are the only clues. Luckily, Mrs. Potchard, who makes her living escorting children to and from England, takes Clemency in hand and tries to find those unknown relatives. An ad in the paper brings the attention of a few mysterious characters, and then Miss Clawe appears,

… tall and thin and dressed in deepest black. Her hair was salt-and-pepper grey, scraped back from her face so fiercely that it pulled her eyebrows up into high arches. She wore an old-fashioned bonnet over it, festooned with black satin ribbons. And she carried–not a parasol–but a black umbrella, tightly furled.

Anyone familiar with the genre will recognize a villainess in Miss Clawe, who sets the plot in motion by kidnapping Clemency. Miss Clawe takes the girl to a manor house in Somerset but immediately puts her to work as a scully in the kitchen. It looks bleak for Clemency.

The family she had been staying with, the Marvels (a perfect name for this clever group of people), give chase, partly because they expect payment for their hospitality, but also because they’re truly concerned about Clemency’s welfare. Meanwhile, Clemency, fearing no one will come to her rescue, takes charge of her own fate. She explores the manor, sneaking grapes off the dining table and jam from the store rooms, discovers the reason for her abduction, and makes plans for her escape.

There are layers to this story, and surprises. Just when you think you’ve figured out who Clemency’s friends and enemies are, Lee takes you in a different direction. Just when you think Clemency will get away, someone steps in her path. In the final face-off, a knife-thrower plays a critical role, as do a butler, a gardener, and a spoiled Pekinese lapdog.

This book fits nicely on the shelf between Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events and Philip Pullman’s Count Karlstein, with a hint of Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase. But leave space for sequels — the afterword suggests there’s more to come.


Obsessed with Dystopias: Satisfying Your Reading Needs with a Top 50 List

Dystopian Fiction is my thing. For real-sies. Some of my favorite adult novels fall under this umbrella (The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World, to name a few). I even took an elective in college entitled “Apocalyptic Literature.”

That being said, I must be out of the loop because I haven’t heard of quite of few of the YA dystopian novels that make this list. I’m super pumped the author of this blog gave a nod to Lois Lowry’s The Giver series, as it has been widely considered to be one of the first YA dystopian novels published. You might also notice that Meg Rosoff’s How I live Now was given a nice little nod as well.

So if you’re suffering from Divergent withdrawal and need something to get you through those lonely book-less nights, take a look at this list and tell me what you think.


YA Lit Rebels: With and Without Causes

Hi all! Again, down the rabbit hole of YA Lit. . .

As I was reading through another stack of library books, I noticed that there was another trend that seemed to repeat (and I bet it’s going to come as a HUGE surprise to you teachers/parents/siblings/etc out there): REBELS! And all kinds of rebels, too–rebels that rebel and then feel bad, rebels that rebel and don’t feel bad, rebels that rebel for a cause, and rebels that rebel for, well, what seems to be the fun of it.

So the classic rebel could easily be Katniss in The Hunger Games (and probably some of her cohorts, for that matter). Although reluctant to be the symbol of the revolution between the Capitol and the districts of Panem, who could forget the iconic image when she twirls in that dress on Cesar’s stage, igniting into a fiery mockingjay, sparking the fire that lights the rebellion? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, *please* get thee to the library!)

However, it’s not like Katniss has a copyright on being a rebel. In fact, there are some really unique and intriguing YA books out there that deal with various kinds of rebels, too.

In terms of rebels regretting what they’d done (and indeed rebelling against their own rebellions!), one particularly interesting fantasy series is Cate Tiernan’s Immortal Beloved. Clearly aimed for the older YA set, it follows “Nasty,” one of the immortals who’s lived her life as a ne’er do well–and has not only not done well, she’s done downright vile. As her immortal friends have become increasingly oppressive, obsessive and generally dark magic crazy, she decides she needs to escape. Enter a special retreat for immortals who want to try to resolve their issues, recover who they are as people, and learn to be generally better. The holistic retreat is a shock for Nasty–but as the series progresses, her rebellious nature ultimately leads her towards awareness and improvement, rather than simply acting selfishly and exclusively for her personal benefit. This is a very well-written series, and a very engaging set of rebels!

The Secret to Lying

Following the fantasy rebel theme, though a little more lightly, is Todd Mitchell’s The Secret to Lying. It follows 15-year-old James, an afterthought and general nerd in his previous school, to a new school for the gifted. There, he decides to reinvent himself, to rebel against the stereotype he had been pigeon-holed as, and to spread his wings as a new stereotype (hmmm.): the cool kid. Not a bad idea, but his reliance on creatively retelling the truth leads to not only a humorous/uncomfortable string of events, but also functions as a warning to the reader. This is an interesting page-turner of a story, and speaks to the idea of rebelling gone not quite as well as originally hoped and intended.

Royalty has it’s place rebelling in YA lit, too.

And it rebels with a major cause. Rae Carsons’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns series features a 16-year-old princess-turned-queen protagonist who rebels against neighboring tyrants on behalf of her people. She also rebels (though perhaps inadvertently) against the Disney princess stereotype, as a self-described heavily overweight new queen. Her tendency to rebel both from societal norms and gender norms adds intrigue to a page-turning series.

Oh, but before you conclude that rebellion is a thing of fantasy, brace yourself! It also has a very strong hold in realistic YA fiction.


John Greene’s Looking for Alaska follows Miles Halter as he matures into a rebel against societal norms with his new friends, chases the girl, and tries to learn what’s important in life at his boarding school. Expect cigarettes, swearing, sex, violence and alcohol. (For some reason, elements of Miles remind me of a certain Holden Caulfield).

Finally, Craig Silvey’s tour de force Jasper Jones follows 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin, brought to the brink by the heavy weight of a major secret, a complicated family life, a racist town, and a budding romance. Ultimately, he rebels against his family, against societal norms, even against the law. . . and becomes (arguably) a better–but definitely a happier–person for it. This book, seriously, made me laugh until I cried–talk about beautifully written dialogue!

And these, my friends, are just the tippy-top of some of the YA Lit rebellion canon, from what I can tell. Anyone else read some good rebellions lately? What are your thoughts about teaching rebellion in classrooms? How much is ok? How much topples over the edge? And why oh why is rebellion such a popular YA lit topic, anyway?


Shapeshifter David vs Hydra-headed Goliath: Chris Crutcher


Well, as I finish Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, I have to stop and dash off my pink cloud valentine to Chris Crutcher, the pen warrior. I see some patterns between Deadline and Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes that I consider noteworthy and even admirable. Like a good baker, Crutcher knows that if you stay true to the right measurements of your ingredients, you can be creative with substitutions, and come out with something original each time.

His adolescent boy-protagonists: two extremes in one body, usually the asset hidden behind the hairline, the deficit visible to all the world – what a great way to shape the representative of the Age of Development. Hence, Ben in Deadline is undersized and terminal, and Eric in Sarah Byrnes is fat; both smart. In this way, our hero can discover and discuss thorny social and political dilemmas from a variety of angles  (because he is not scared to use his intelligence) while retaining the essential vulnerability of anguished physicality, the most painful aspect of adolescence, in my experience.  Religion, nationalism, racism and sexuality, even death, are brought into play, through our flawed protagonist. We can love him, since his imperfections are always visible, and we feel his experiences, as his vulnerabilities bring us into his world.

His superheroes are female: they embody the feminine mystery of life by carrying a secret, or more, of the painful realities of an oppressive and misogynistic culture; unveiling these drive the story towards its ultimate goal: the truth. These females have greater spunk and grit while showing how to overcome, or at least resist, the  abuse of a hypocritical society; another set of contradictions. They inspire our protagonist, and us, to face the truth, however horrible it is.

His villains are male: their destructiveness is two-fold, coming from the inability to question oneself, i.e. use one’s intelligence; and believing that physical domination is a solution. Despite their darkness, sometimes they are a mixed bag, like Sooner in Deadline, who is redeemed by his athleticism, team spirit, and the possibility that his death will change his abusive father; and Dale in Sarah Byrnes, who is brought onto the winning team by Sarah Byrne’s tactical strategies.

He has two kinds of families, too: the ones that are able to support each other in a healthy way, despite obstacles (Eric and his single mom in Sarah Byrnes; Ben and his brother Cody in Deadline); and families that have threads of violence, abuse and fractured relationships (Sarah in Sarah Byrnes; Dallas in Deadline). He also depicts families ruled by single obsessions, like Sooner’s dad in Deadline, and Ellerby in Sarah Byrnes.

Crutcher challenges the reader to think about issues raised by the smarter kids in the school; he alternates that heady thinking with pulse-racing descriptions of athletic competitiveness, an all-American pursuit. In this manner, he keeps his polarized balance by offering critiques of our political and social culture while cheering us on with the adrenaline of sports.

So, I am warmed by Crutcher’s big, democratic, all-American heart that believes that engaged young people, thinking, feeling, reasoning, will find solutions to the complex, unfair world they are inheriting, despite dark endings.  The desire to have young people commit to their intelligence, their uniqueness, their strengths, is an evident pattern in his books, and in the funny and loving way he depicts all  his young people.

Hatchet 20th Anniversery Addition

I loved this book when I read it as an adolescent, and after reading it again as an adult, I fell in love again. As a child, I loved the story, the suspense and the struggle to survive, but as an adult, I noticed elements like Paulsen’s voice and literary techniques such as repetition and the rich lesson it provides on the human condition in terms of its environment. I also admire the way the book navigates through the main character, Brian’s, mind. He becomes a different person because his environment demands it. One of my favorite moments in the book, especially as a life-skills teaching tool, is when Brain observes, “the second most important thing about nature, what drives nature. Food was first, but the work for the food went on and on. Nothing in nature was lazy.”

The version of Hatchet that I have attached is especially prolific because there are notes from the author spread throughout the book. Paulsen often chooses a theme or an action that Brain preforms in given chapters and writes a personal connection, or non-fiction information as compliments. For example, he gives information about how to detect and respond to a heart attack,  how to rid yourself of skunk odor, facts about bears, shares his experience with making a mistake and learning from it in chapter 14 when Brian realizes how crucial they are. Students will thoroughly enjoy this novel and it ignites rich discussion and debate.



I loved this book! Why did it have to end this way? Oh, I know, nothing neat will do, but I so wanted Brian to continue figuring out how to survive in the Canadian wilderness. He was learning so much and maturing so beautifully.  Comparing life in the wilderness with life in the Big Apple is probably unfair, but we have it so easy and yet so hard here.  I wouldn’t want to deal with those mosquitoes, or eat without my seasonings, but I wish I could become as lean and self sufficient as Brian did in that natural setting.  And I would hate not to have human company for such a long time (50 plus days?), yet while I no longer  feel overwhelmed by the crowds in New York, the  noise pollution does get to me at times, in fact more times than I care to count. I love the comfort of paved streets, but Brian learns to thread lightly and his senses become heightened by the need to eat and to survive generally. Have we given up too  much in our quest for “development”? This is a great book to teach youngsters and the young-at-heart about so many things: responsibility, thrift, patience, humility, respect for nature,…and the list goes on.


Island of the Blue Dolphins


OM—Scott O’Dell’s novel  “Island of Blue Dolphin” seem to have a central theme of loneliness.  Throughout the novel the character Karana seem to always end up being alone.  It seems as if Karana first felt a sense of loneliness when the Aleuts attacked her people/killed the mend of her tribe.  Loneliness plays a role in the sense that even  thought the tribe fought back they   were alone to fight their battle with whatever weapons they had.  Loneliness can also  be seen throughout other parts of the novel especially on pg 45 when Ramo was killed by  wild dogs.  O’Dell’s demonstrated real  feeling of  being alone  through his character.  Karana was forced to continue on without anyone but herself especially when it comes to fight the many odds.  On pg 152 Rontu’s death also represents loneliness.   Rontu had been a great company to Karana and now he is gone, therefore, leaving Karana to be by herself without a friendly being.  Page 168 too represents loneliness because Karana missed her chance of being save by the “white men.”  Finally, in respect to loneliness, page 173 represented the most horrific/important loneliness of the novel.  Karana  found out that the ship that her people took  was destroyed in a shipwreck.  Now, her people/family/cultural partners are all gone and she is the only one left.  “Not until I came to Mission Santa Barbara and met Father Gonzalez did I learn from him that the ship had sunk in a great storm.”

Gender role also was an important highlight in O’Dell’s novel. Society has always been involved in social roles of genders; men are supposed to… and females should not … In “Island of the Blue Dolphin” women and men had  different roles according to their gender.  Men were responsible for hunting, protecting the people and creating weapons.  Unlike men, women were responsible for cooking and farming/gathering.  Page 11 stated ” the women were cooking supper  but all of them stopped and gathered around her waiting for her to speak.”  Page 25 also supported gender roles ” the women were never asked to do more than stay home , cook food, and make clothing.”  The novel also tells of the one woman the Aleuts brought with them possibly for cooking and performing “women’s work” while they hunted.   Gender roles can also be supported by pg 49. “The laws of Ghalas-at forbade the making of weapons by women of the tribe.”

Nonetheless, I also could not not help but to think of the historical allusion that this story brought.  The events of the story simply reminded me of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans.   Like the earlier event in history “white men” came in ships to the land of the natives and caused the destruction of the Native Americans and their culture.   One might agree that Karana wanted to hold on to her traditions and keep her culture alive even though the ” white men” seem to be a force that rip the Natives and their culture apart.  It also seemed as if O’Dell was trying to  tell his audience how culturally strong Karana was and would do anything to hold on to her traditions.  Even thought Ramo was on the island, I feel that Karana went back to him and not for him because they belong together as a tribe in their home.  Even  though many people tried to keep her from going overboard she managed to break free and return home; that was true determination.  There were many y other events that demonstrated white men trying to rob Karana of her cultural riches/trying to rip her from her tradition.   However, one of the most touching of these events occurred on page 171-172.  Karana was told to strip  herself of her traditional clothing and replace them with clothes that did not belong to her people/culture.  She was alone and couldn’t fight to keep her cultural riches.

*The enclosed picture is a present day Google Earth shot of the San Nicholas Island*