Archives For Middle School Classroom Library

The advertisement for the 55th Annual Mark Twain Library Labor Day Weekend Book Fair read,

“A large collection of Art books, Environment & Nature, Baseball books, many handsome sets and thousands of CHILDREN’s books..”

I want to make a correction to this advertisement.
There are 300 less children’s books at this book sale because there are 300 books in my car.
By next week those 300 books will be distributed into classroom libraries in grade 4-10 for independent reading.

The Mark Twain Library Book Sale in Redding, Connecticut, claims to be “the oldest – and one of the largest – in New England:”

The history of the sale begins with its namesake, Mark Twain in 1908. When Twain (Samuel Clemens) moved to Redding in 1907, he had more books than would fit in his new home so he donated over a thousand to start the Library. When Twain passed away in 1910, his daughter Clara donated more books for sale, and 107 years later, the Book Fair is still one of the library’s principal fundraisers.

This oldest book sale is also one of the best run in the state.

The sale is held in easily accessible Redding Heritage Community Center. As one entered, volunteers provided maps that detail the book table layout, from mystery selections to travel guides to a table marked ephemera.

The fiction tables in the adult section were organized by author (which made fast finding for copies of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). Of course, having the hardcovers and trade paperbacks grouped together could be part of a sociological study in recent popular reading trends as evidenced by multiple copies of the The Stieg Larsson Trilogy/Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series (the fascination apparently over). There were wide aisles to accommodate the “book sale bump”- a result of patrons trying to read titles while carrying overloaded bags or boxes.

The volunteer help was outstanding; students (middle-high school aged) manned tables to tally books or straighten shelves. Rather than shy away, they approached shoppers with retail-like patter, “Would you like a box to place your holdings?” They checked book prices book-by-book and reloaded bags once they finished counting. Their adult supervisors handled several cashier’s tables. Outside, there were boy scouts who sold baked goods and (predictably) asked if patrons needed help carrying books to cars.

This book sale was one smooth operation.

My finds?

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

One large box filled with a variety (40+) of Star Wars related books. I am anticipating renewed interest with the December (18th, 2015) release of The Force Awakens.
10 neatly stacked copies of Jeanette Walls’s powerful memoir of her homeless parents in The Glass Castle for a Grade 12 English course.
5 copies of Under the Same Sky ( 2005) by Cynthia DeFelice which deals with migrant Mexican workers on an upstate New York farm; ideal for a small book group or lit circle. (Good story; horrible book cover).
Multiple copies of books from R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series and from Rick Rioden’s Percy Jackson series.


Selection of high interest titles

Final price for 300 good quality, high interest books for independent reading libraries in grades 4 through 10?


Thank you, Mark Twain Library Book Sale Library volunteers. As your founder stated, “We believe that out of the public school grows the greatness of a nation.” (see post)

I know that greatness of a nation starts and continues with the practice of reading.
Your efforts will be felt in many public school classrooms in Connecticut not so far away.


The Southport Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut, hosts a summer book sale every July under large tents that cover most of the lawn and in the library’s auditorium. Browsing for books under this acreage, one can only imagine “Where did all these books come from?”

The most logical conclusion I can come to is that Southport residents must do nothing all day but read.

They must read a book a day…maybe more.

I tried as hard as I could to lessen the load of titles on the young adult tables, but the six boxes (approximately 250 books) I hauled out from the sale barely made a dent. These books will go into classroom libraries for independent reading (silent sustained reading -SSR), literature circles, book clubs, etc. The premise of bringing these books to the classroom is to make sure that students at all grade levels have access to books at any given moment during the school day.

In under two hours, I filled six boxes with plenty of favorites (grades 5-10) from authors Gary Paulson, Meg Cabot, Ann Brashares, Jerry Spinelli, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Rick Riordan. I also grabbed selections of book series that fall into the “popular culture categories” such Goosebumps (RL Stine) , Captain Underpants (Dav Pilkey), Ranger’s Apprentice (John Flanagan), and Alex Rider (Alex Horowitz).

These are not the books that teachers will “teach” but they are the books students will read; the difference is described in an earlier post.

There was a box of a dozen copies of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. I picked up 10 clean copies of this best seller as a reading choice for students groups who prefer non-fiction. This is the story of a young boy in Malawi (Africa) who developed a contraption that would provide his village with electricity and running water:

With a small pile of once-forgotten science textbooks; some scrap metal, tractor parts, and bicycle halves; and an armory of curiosity and determination, he embarked on a daring plan to forget an unlikely contraption and small miracle that would change the lives around him. (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind)

There is increased attention to incorporate informational texts such as this book because of the design of the  Common Core State Standards in Literacy which suggest that by 12th grade, 70% of a reader’s diet should be non-fiction. The copies I have are enough for a small group(s) to read in literature circles or book clubs.

I also collected copies of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for the American Literature classes (grade 10). This apocalyptic novel is worth including in a curriculum because of McCarthy’s style and message. In an earlier post I describe how The Road was the first book I collected for use in the classroom; its integration into curriculum was very successful. Copies of the book with its distinctive black cover and bold lettering were easily found among the 10 or 12 tables of donated fiction….as if there had been a massive book club after-party.

Screenshot 2015-07-26 14.16.55There were large crowds attending the Southport Pequot Library’s annual sale on Saturday, and the long lines of patrons waiting patiently to check out at the volunteer cashier tables might cause one to wonder if the sale has become a victim of its own success?

On the other hand, as they slowly snaked past the tables of nature books and cookbooks, patrons continued to browse and added even more purchases to the piles in their arms or bags. No one complained as there was always something to read.

Overflow of books or marketing geniuses??…those long lines on a Saturday afternoon could just be another successful marketing technique by the Friends of the Pequot Library.

While they are not wrapped in shiny paper with frills and bows, the piles of donated used books on the tables of the local area library book sales this summer are presents.

It does not matter that these presents are “re-purposed” or “re-gifted”…these books will be presents to students to encourage reading. It’s Christmas in July for filling the classroom libraries!

red boxFor this special kind of “Christmas shopping”, I have been to three Connecticut library books sales: the New Milford Public Library, the C.H. Booth Library in Newtown, and the Westport Public Library. These large book sales have the titles that students want to read, because the books have been donated by students who have already read them. These gently used donated books have already been field-tested.

Choosing books that student want to read is different than selecting books that students should read. Educators believe that students should read selections from the literary canon, for example, those written by Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and the Brontë sisters. Students should read titles such as The Crucible, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Odyssey. These selections from the literary canon are often assigned in middle or high school classes.

But many students do not want to read these pieces of classic literature for pleasure. They want to read a title from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid or The Hunger Games series. The key difference between reading for pleasure and assigned reading is recognizing that students have similar guilty pleasures as adults in reading popular culture,

Students want to read titles such as the Dork Diaries;  Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging; I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You; Hatchet; or The Perks of Being a Wallflower. These are the titles they look for in their independent reading choices. So, I looked for these titles at the three book sales, and I found copies of all of them.

The titles students want to read can build vocabulary and fluency for the classic literature they are assigned in school. Reading books by John Green (Looking for Alaska, The Fault in our Stars), Anthony Horowitz (Point Blank, Scorpio) or Sarah Dessen (Dreamland, This Lullaby, The Truth About Forever) gives students the chance to practice reading for pleasure. I looked for these titles, and I found copies of all of them as well.

Reading for pleasure for today’s teen reader means wandering in some very dark worlds as students are particularly drawn bleak futures as depicted in the Divergent series (dystopian world) or Delirium series (dystopian world) or the Chaos Walking series (finding yourself in a dystopian world).  Again, I found copies of all of these titles.

Student readers of fantasy, a genre sadly overlooked in most school offerings, cannot get enough of Rick Riordan’s retelling of Greek Mythology (The Lightning Thief, The Last Olympian) or his newer Egyptian series (The Red Pyramid). I found multiple copies from both series.

When students are offered the titles they want to read, they can practice reading the way marathoners train for races or musicians rehearse for performances. Practicing reading in school with Silent Sustained Reading (SSR) or for homework improves their reading pace, their reading accuracy, and helps students develop a reading routine.

It does not matter if reading practice for pleasure includes some titles from the often maligned series from Captain Underpants (intermediate grades) or Twilight (high school grade). The elements of story (protagonist, antagonist, conflict, rising action, and resolution) are in each. Not to mention Stephanie Meyer’s borrowing passages from Wuthering Heights to accessorize her vampire-filled trilogy.

There is good reading practice in the R.L. Stine collections from Goosebumps to Fear Street, and there is good reading practice in Fruit Baskets (Manga) or Calvin and Hobbs comic books or in the  Darwin Awards series. And, yes, I purchased many copies of each.

Titles with movie tie-in such as the Star Wars series, World War Z, or the original Jurassic Park are always popular, and students check to see how accurately the film matches the text. YA Chick lit from Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries) orAnn Brashares (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) appeal to a particular female demographic while novels written by Nicholas Evans and Jodi Picoult can take that same group well into adulthood. I found copies of all of these.

What I did not find were those popular Minecraft books, but those will come in book sales next summer as more and more students engage in the game platform. Note: In 2016 expect a Minecraft wave near you!

All together, shopping at the three book sales yielded book as “presents” that will be spread out over 50 classroom libraries. These popular books will encourage students to practice reading in and out of school  to build up their reading stamina, for school and for life.

The Friends of the Library website lists all the book sales in Connecticut, and there are plenty of opportunities year-round to increase libraries that are geared for reading pleasure. Our students will be life-long readers if they develop the solid reading box

So far, this has been A Very Merry Book Sale season! Happy Holidays!

The Hollywood Academy released the 2015 nominations this past week, and their choices for best picture, best actor, and best director lit a firestorm on social media about the lack of diversity in their choices.Oscar

Some of the heated discussions called into question the make-up of the Academy, which according to a  2014 Los Angeles Times article is:

  • 93 percent white
  • 76 percent male
  • Average age of 63

The percentages that make up the homogenized Academy bear a striking resemblance to the make-up in the canon of literature traditionally taught in high school English classrooms, a list of works dominated by white male writers. There are numerous reasons as to why the literature is singular in gender and race: politics, economics, culture, and textbooks play a part. The most probable explanation on why the traditional canon endures, however, may be as simple as teachers teaching the books they were taught.

Even the average age of the dead white male writers in the canon is the same as those in the Academy. A sampling of traditionally assigned authors at the time of their deaths (offered in no particular order) is the average age as the members in the Academy=63 years: John Milton (72), Percy Bysshe Shelley (30), F. Scott Fitzgerald (44), Dylan Thomas (39), Arthur Miller (90), William Shakespeare (52), John Keats (27) Ernest Hemingway (62), William Faulkner (65), John Steinbeck (66) William Blake (70), George Orwell (47), and TS Eliot (77).

My observation that older white male literature dominates the curriculum is nothing new, and while there are there are glimmers of diversity, authorship bears little resemblance to readership. Occasionally, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and August Wilson pop up to address racial diversity, while the inclusion of Mary Shelley, Harper Lee, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters are worthwhile contributions to gender equity.

At the same time, there is a growing body of popular young adult literature from authors representing diversity such as Jacquelyn Woodson, Sharon Draper, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Gary Soto, and Sherman Alexie.  In a manner akin to film audiences, students have been voting for these book choices with their pocketbooks or checking out library books. They are selecting materials (novels, graphic novels, animé, pop culture, biography) that they want to read.

As readers, students look for characters like themselves, who have problems like themselves, even if the settings of the stories are in the ancient past or distant future. If a student never builds empathy with a character because all the assigned reading comes from the canon, then the canon is disconnected from personal experience and useless for that student. If creating life long readers is the goal, curriculum developers must pay attention to student interests and the trends in the popular reading lists. Continuing the disconnect between the traditional canon in school and what students choose does little to build credibility.

That same kind of disconnect is seen in the nominations submitted by the Academy. Their choices show a wide gulf of opinion between critics and audiences, between the selected films and popular films at the box office. National Public Radio (NPR) film critic Bob Mondello noted the low audience numbers for many of the 2015 nominated films:

MONDELLO:  If you total up all of the grosses for all of the best picture nominees this year, you come up to about 200 million, which is roughly what a picture like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” makes all by itself so that you’re talking about very few eyeballs were on those pictures.

Mondello’s noting the difference in box office is striking in comparison to the the top three box office films to three of the nominated films for best picture:

1 Guardians of the Galaxy – $333,145,154
2 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 $330,643,639
3 Captain America: The Winter Soldier – $259,766,572

94 Birdman  $26,725,993
95 The Theory of Everything $26,317,946
100. Boyhood  $24,357,447

Mondello further suggests that Academy has not supported its own self interest in making nominations:

And the idea here is that you’re not going to watch the Oscar telecast unless you have a horse in the race….And I think what they’re hoping is that the next six weeks up until the show, these movies will be seen by a lot more people. If they aren’t – and they only have 38 days to do this – then you’re going to have the lowest rated Oscars telecast in the history of the Oscars.

Encouraging people to attend the films nominated by the Academy will be a challenge, and the success of the Oscars this year will be determined by audience choice. The deaf ear of the Academy this year may make them more open to diversity in future years. In contrast, a deaf ear from curriculum developers who continue to assign literature from the canon because “it has always been taught” may result in student audiences disconnected and less interested in reading anything at all.

Hoping to bridge this disconnect are organizations such as the Children’s Book Council (CBC )Diversity Committee whose mission statement is:

We endeavor to encourage diversity of race, gender, geographical origin, sexual orientation, and class among both the creators of and the topics addressed by kid lit. We strive for a more diverse range of employees working within the industry, of authors and illustrators creating inspiring content, and of characters depicted in children’s and young adult books.

The organization We Need Diverse Books is also committed to expanding diversity in literature and in the video below, the popular YA writer Jon Green (The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska) makes a compelling case for including other, newer voices into the literary canon that is taught in classrooms.

Unlike the choices made by this year’s Academy, the choices in English classroom should represent diversity in authorship, in genre, in character, and in topics because the readership is diverse. NPR’s Bob Mondello’s metaphor about engaging an audience for the Oscar show this year could be a metaphor for creating life long readers. Unless students “have a horse in the race” in what they read, they will not value the choices made for them.

The advertisement on Book Sale Finder for the Wilton Public Library Book Sale  in Wilton, CT, read,All books on sale for this sale… not just Children and Teens.”

The reason for the clarification? This annual end of summer book sale usually offers the best selections of donated books for children and teens in the area.

This past weekend’s sale  (9/19-21) did not disappoint.

In the space of an hour, I collected over 200 books suited for students in grades 5-10. High interest titles such as Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging for the older students, selections from the Lunch Lady graphic novel series (“serving justice, and serving…..lunch!”) for the younger students. My shopping spree was fueled by the knowledge that Sunday was the 1/2 price day. Hardcovers were $1.50; paperbacks were as little as $.25. At these prices, who could resist picking up multiple copies of Chicken Soup for the Teenaged Soul or duplicate selections from Margaret Peterson’s Haddix series?

All books are headed to the independent reading classroom libraries in the intermediate, middle, and high schools in West Haven. In particular, the SSR (silent sustained reading) in grades 7 & 8 is a reading initiative that is now possible because of the new 90 minute block schedule. Teachers explained the SSR program to parents during the Open House last week and encouraged attending parents to discuss reading for fun with their children.

My industrious selecting caught the attention of several of the volunteers who provided the extra bags and boxes I needed. These Friends of the Wilton Library were genuinely delighted that I was removing a large portion of their inventory.
“These books will be enjoyed again,” from one.
“You are exactly who we want to come to these sales,” from another, “these will be books for classrooms!”
“You got so many of the better titles,” from a third who seemed to know YA literature as she perused my selections.

Like good professional salespeople, they continued to affirm the choices I made as they counted….and counted, and counted. The sum total? $150.00!

This event was advertised as an “Awesome Autumn Book Sale” and yes, it was awesome! This is the first day of autumn, and this autumn I can confidently predict there will be a multiple floods…multiple classroom book floods!

Thank you, Friends of the Wilton Public Library!

Bags ready? Set to find great bargains? Go to Newtown, Connecticut, for the Friends of the C.H.Booth Library where over 100,000 books, records, DVDs go on sale annually. Their book sale always marks for me the beginning of the book sale season. This year’s starting date was July 12, 2014.

For the first time, I went on the admission day ($5) and used extra help (husband & son) to follow me with bags. Even then, I was too late to get the 20 or so copies of The Great Gatsby I saw someone packing up at the check out counter. My son noted that I also missed out on copies of of The Hunger Games Trilogy selections.
“The woman was only four feet away from you when I saw her stuffing them in her bag,” he claimed, “but I wasn’t going to tackle her.”

Fortunately, thanks to the diligent efforts of what looked like a small army of volunteer Friends of the Library, the tables were well organized by genre and author. I was able to get multiple copies of the 12th grade summer reading book, A Walk in the Woods.. In addition, I filled bags with the required summer reading for Advanced Placement English Literature including:
Little Bee, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and
Bel Canto. I also found copies for the grade 10 world literature library including The Places in Between, The Life of Pi, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and A Long Way Gone.
There were also books to add to classroom libraries for independent reading including Dairy Queen, Elsewhere, and a pile of books from the Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.


Counting Books at the check-out with the friendly volunteer


Five bags of books for classroom libraries for $229.00; a bargain!

The book sale at Newtown is a model of efficiency. There is room to move between tables, the books are properly sorted by genre ( for the most part) and the volunteer help is cheerful and efficient.

“You must be using these in a school?” suggested the woman checking us out as she counted out 20 copies of The Help.
“Actually,” my son replied feigning seriousness, “we really like this book….we’re going to read every single copy.”
“Oh,” she started, and then smiled,”you’re terrible…”

What is not terrible is that I spent $229 for over 80 books; some of them core texts and some for independent reading.
The summer book sale season helps me put books in the hands of readers. The Newtown Friends of the Library book sale does that extremely well.

Kate DiCamillo stood in the nave of Riverside Cathedral, her curly hair barely visible over the podium, her voice clear and strong as she delivered the keynote address for the 85th Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project Reunion (October 19, 2013).

She was exactly as advertised from the information on her website, “I am short. And loud.”

kate-dicamillo-floraandulyssestheilluminatedadvent-68She addressed the packed house of literacy teachers, some 2000 strong, who knew her as the author of Because of Winn-Dixie (a Newbery Honor book), The Tiger Rising (a National Book Award finalist), and The Tale of Despereaux (winner of the 2003 Newbery Medal), but her morning speech was about her latest book, Flora and Ulysses. She set the stage with her opening proclamation:

“This story begins as stories often do with a vacuum cleaner.”

Not just any vacuum cleaner. The vacuum at the center of this story was a 1952 tank Electrolux 2000, a treasured appliance belonging to DiCamillo’s mother. How treasured? DiCamillo joked that when her mother who was ill moved to be with her in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she worried more about the safe delivery of the Electrolux to the new home more than her own personal safety.”I want you to know that you can have the Electrolux when I am gone,” her mother told her. “It’s a really good vacuum cleaner,” she said and added, “The cord is extra long…and its retractable.”

The audience of teachers laughed; DiCamillo’s dry delivery in describing her mother’s attachment to a housecleaning appliance was part retrospective for the older teachers and part kitsch for the newer ones. “Remember the Hoover?” DiCamillo quoted her mother as saying, “that Hoover was useless!” But as she recounted how her mother’s illness progressed, the appreciation for this appliance took on new significance. “I really hope you will take the Electrolux,” her mother told her, “that makes me feel better.” So when her mother passed way, DiCamillo did take the Electrolux, but put it in the garage through that winter.

She spoke how in those dark days after her mother’s death, she found comfort in a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, from Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God and she read the lines from the short poem:

“God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call Life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.”

She reflected that when her mother was dying, she had held her mother’s hand in comfort, an action profoundly different from all the ways her mother had taken her hand when she was younger. The crowd was visibly moved by this retelling of the loss of her mother, but in typical DiCamillo storytelling fashion, her speech then veered off to include the death of a squirrel.

Shifting from the pathos for her mother, DiCamillo recounted that one day, a dying squirrel had chosen the front steps of her home as the last stop on his final journey. His eyes were open, yet unseeing; his chest dramatically heaving with his last breaths.
“I didn’t want him to suffer and die on my front steps,” she bemoaned.
So, she called a friend.
“‘There’s a squirrel on my front steps…He’s dying’,” she told her friend (Carla), “‘what should I do?'”
The advice she received from her gentle and humane friend appalled her.
“‘Do you have a shovel…and a tee shirt?'” asked Carla.
DiCamillo admitted that she had a shovel, but that she “moved away from the front door so the squirrel would not hear what was being said.”
“‘Put the tee shirt over the squirrel, and I will come over and hit him with the shovel,’ replied Carla.”

Fortunately, before that plan could be executed, the squirrel had crawled away.
“He may have heard us, or he had moved to get away from my presence,” said DiCamillo. The same people who had been tearing up from from the death of her mother and the power of the Rilke poem were now laughing out loud; the cathartic shift in emotions had been seamless.

DiCamillo then told the audience that she considered her reaction to the dying squirrel was not unlike the reaction of E.B.White in an essay he published in The Atlantic, “The Death of a Pig”:

 “He came out of the house to die. When I went down, before going to bed, he lay stretched in the yard a few feet from the door. I knelt, saw that he was dead, and left him there: his face had a mild look, expressive neither of deep peace nor of deep suffering, although I think he had suffered a good deal. I went back up to the house and to bed, and cried internally – deep hemorrhagic intears.”

“White claimed that his novel Charlotte’s Web was not connected to this essay…but could this event,” DiCamillo speculated, “have been more?”
She paused to consider their mutual despair over loss.
“He wanted to keep the pig alive….I wanted to keep the squirrel alive.”

And in that instant, a cathedral full of teachers understood that great ideas do not happen in (pardon the pun) a vacuum. DiCamillo’s speech illustrated how the three seemingly unconnected elements in her keynote address were the elements of story she combined in her latest book Flora and Ulysses.

In this story, there is a vacuum, a squirrel, a shovel, and several lines of the Rilke poem.
To be more specific, there is the near death experience of the squirrel, mistakenly sucked up by the Ulysses 2000; there is a comic-book superhero aficionado who intervenes; and there are several drafts of meta-physical squirrel poetry.  The story has the “beauty and terror” from the Rilke poem as well as the giving of a hand for comfort. There are what DiCamillo terms, “eccentric, endearing characters” presented in a format that combines print with comic book styled illustrations. Like the keynote address, the novel plucks at both the heart and the funny bone; it is a wonderful story.

The biography on DiCamillo’s website reads, “I write for both children and adults, and I like to think of myself as a storyteller.” Listening to her speak, I cannot think of her as anything else.

House of the ScorpionThere they were. Four used copies of Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion, and they were my find of the day at the Friends of the Danbury Public Library Fall Book Sale last weekend in Danbury, Connecticut. The unmistakeable bright red-orange and black spines were scattered in the author-alphabetized “F” section of the fiction offerings. They should have been in the young adult (YA) section, but a volunteer’s shelving error was probably why they were still available when I arrived. In this case, chance favored me.

I first became acquainted with Farmer’s science fiction novel two summers ago when I heard the plot involved cloning. I was looking for YA literature that could be used as a companion pieces to  Frankenstein; novels that incorporated many of the ethical questions raised by recent advances in the science of cloning. Science fiction was the genre that offered the most obvious choices. Farmer herself recognizes how science fiction anticipates the problems created by real science, saying:

“Science fiction allows you to approach a lot of social issues you can’t get to directly. If you wrote a book about how cloning is horrible, it would read like a sermon and no one would pay attention to it. “

The genre of science fiction is amazingly prescient in predicting technological advances.  H. G. Wells’ offered  The First Men in the Moon in 1901, 68 years before Neil Armstrong exited Apollo 11 and took steps on the lunar surface.  Digital books, submarines, droids and robots were features in science fiction novels before they became real nouns in our vocabulary. Credit for dreaming up the Internet is given to a wide spectrum of  fiction writers, from Mark Twain to Arthur C. Clarke, and manipulating human life has its genesis with 18 year old Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Therefore, Farmer is following the successful literary tradition of predicting man’s future. Her prediction takes the form of another dystopia, the equivalent of a political science crash course in failed nation-states for young readers.

Her opening mimic another great science fiction read, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. His great satire’s opening scene is in a factory that is manufacturing embryos. With streamlined industrialized precision, conveyor belts carry embryos that are then deprived of oxygen in order to create a caste of mindless workers. Farmer borrows some of Huxley’s ideas and begins her story with images that recall that frightening scenario:

A dull, red light shown on the faces of the workers as they watched their own arrays of little glass dishes. Each one contained a drop of life. (1.2)

In addition, Farmer’s predictions of a territory between the United States and Mexico controlled by drug cartels is plausible. That is the setting for her “coming of age” story of a young clone named Matt. The medical breakthroughs that create Matt, a clone of the drug lord El Patrón, are also feasible. Matt is unaware that his life is both protected by his status as the clone for the most powerful man in the land of Opium and endangered by El Patrón’s mortality…and at 146 years old, El Patrón is very mortal.

Farmer combines the issues of organ-harvesting, the economics of drug use, and adds a few Zombies for an exciting read that contains several amazing plot twists. I remember my jaw dropping…I didn’t see one twist coming at all. Farmer’s inventiveness with plot and skills as a storyteller resulted in the book receiving both a National Book Award for Young Adult Literature and a Newbery Honor in 2002. 

Last year, we offered 7th grade independent choices in literature circles centered on their interest in dystopias. The House of the Scorpion was one title offered along with other science fiction novels including Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, M.T. Anderson’s Feed, Neil Shusterman’s Unwind, and several of Scott Westerfield’s selections from his Pretties series. Students fresh from reading Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Game Trilogy were ready for other predictions for the future, and those who had not completed the series were given the opportunity to read these as well.

The cost for the four gently used copies at the book sale was $8.00; copies normally retail for $8.10, so this was a “buy one get three free” bargain in comparison. Based on other used book sales, we now have a class set (30) of The House of the Scorpion. The novel could be an all class read, however, as some of the topics in the novel require mature readers, we opt to make this and the novel Feed independent choice books.

The ethical questions raised in Frankenstein and The House of the Scorpion makes them good companion pieces, but that is not the only reason to pair them together. Our English Department’s essential question is “What does it mean to be human?” Literature gives students the language and the models for answering that question. The Monster in Frankenstein and the protagonist Matt in The House of the Scorpion are “non-human” characters that make students consider that being human may not be limited by the definitions in science, but by the possibilities in science fiction.

There has been a heat wave in Connecticut this week, temperatures in the high 90s with muggy, sultry, humid weather, so it was no surprise that the bargains were “hot, hot, hot” under the tent at the Westport Public Library Book Sale.  So hot, in fact, that organizers had large fans set up in some of the outdoor tents! The sale is held in Westport, Connecticut:

Tents on Jesup Green and inside the Library
July 20-23, 2013
(Monday—Everything half-price)
Tuesday: 9 am-1 pm (Free day, donations appreciated)

The Westport Public Library Book Sale is a premiere event in the state for several reasons:

  • The tents are huge with tables laden with books;
  • Prices are good (Hardcovers are $3/trades $1/paperbacks and children’s books $.50);
  • Books are of exceptionally high quality.

The main tent offered a spectacular number of books with wide aisles. This is where the non-fiction texts/literature/reference texts are usually laid out.

Informational texts for science classes!

Informational texts for science classes!

For some perplexing reason, however, the teen/YA section was also in the main tent, while the sports/nature books were in the children’s tent. This led to some mistaken shelving; there was a copy of fairy tales and Miss Nelson is Missing in between golf books and some travel guides. The magnitude of the collection of donated books meant some challenges for those  keeping book sorters on message; sometimes the same text appeared on tables for different genres. For example, copies of Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation were in biography, history, politics, and for some inexplicable reason, Judaica.

The children’s book section was extensive enticing shoppers of all ages; shoppers should be wary of smaller patrons underfoot.

My target area for filling the classroom shelves was the tent for fiction, which was overflowing with hardcovers and paperbacks. There were so many hardcover fiction books, that I later discovered an adjunct aisle of hardcover fiction that spilled into the classic literature section in the main tent. I am sure that The Girl Who Played with Fire was enjoying spending time with her more mature cousins Ethan Frome and The Red Badge of Courage.

Unfortunately, the aisles in the smaller fiction tent here were not as wide as in the main tent, and there were boxes loaded with trade paperback fiction below the tables. Stooping to browse through these lower levels slows down buyers and makes for some awkward moments in passing. To make passing smoother, though, there was a volunteer dutifully loading up the tables once people made their selections.


One stack of The Help for English III

I was looking for specific titles and soon was rewarded with a dozen copies of Katheryn Stockett’s The Help. This book retails for $12.92 on Amazon; 12 copies would have cost $155.04. Instead, I spent $73.50 in total for these books plus three and a half bags full of other titles, many also beginning with word “the”: The Things They Carried, The Road, The Giver, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and The Book Thief. 

Because the trademark of Westport readers is their ability to take exceptionally good care of their books, these copies are in pristine condition. I suspect there must be some town ordinance about bending pages or preserving book covers on reading material in town.

A further study of the town, based on donated books, would be that Westport residents:

  • Believe in parenting book (five tables full);
  • Do not donate small paperback copies (only three tables full);
  • Do not read the genre “romance” (no tables full);
  • Travel extensively (based on travel guides);

The book sale has dedicated volunteers who will tally books on the side lawns of the main tent if you are purchasing more than an armful; there are boxes available for ambitious shoppers and checkout is a breeze.

The Westport book sale is a bibliophile’s delight with red hot bargains for all ages. Now, if only they could do something about this heat wave!