Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Winter Break Mash-Up

Ahhhhh. Winter Break. For some (like me), this means Christmas. For others in that category (also like me), this means.......BOOOOOOOOKKKKKKSSSSSSS!!!!! Yes, I did receive many books for Christmas. I have also read most of them in the week that followed, earning me the title of "book freak" from many in my family. I'm going to do a quick review of all of the ones that I have read so far.

Paper Towns by John Green
Once, as we were leaving a stage combat class, my friend said, " Oh my god, that was so much fun. Like, I was about to die from all the fun." This was the sensation I experienced reading this book. The story is that Q (short for Quentin), has been in love with his neighbor, Margo, since he was a kid. One night, she climbs into his room and employs him as an assistant in her various acts of vengeance and kindness around town. Some include: leaving a rotten fish and vandalizing her former boyfriend's house and the house of her best friend, whom he was cheating on her with, going into a closed skyscraper in the middle of town to see the city, and breaking into Sea World, as it is the only theme park in her area that she hasn't broken into. The next day, Margo disappears, leaving small clues for Q on how to find her. You get caught up in the mystery and find yourself trying to decode Margo's messages before Q does. The book has a powerful ending while still being fun and exciting. I really loved the way that Green incorporated the normalcy of "teenager-dom" into a VERY un-normal (for lack of a better term) situation. Although someone like Margo is one in a thousand, you feel like she could be anywhere. 

The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron
This book is more along the lines of a YA fantasy. However, while still very easily sliding under that label, I don't think that it has completely succumbed to the stereotypes of its genre. The book has a very imaginative storyline. It takes place around 1850 in England. Seventeen-year-old Katherine is send to her uncle, where she is supposed to send him to a lunatic asylum. She then discovers that he is a wonderful old man and has many beautiful inventions. She also befriends a young mute boy named Davy and her uncle's apprentice, Lane, whom she soon begins to develop feelings for. As you can see, the book sounds pretty generic. I think that the writing is what stood out to me. Cameron artfully creates a world that you can imagine yourself in, and she has very good character development. You can really feel what Katharine is feeling. 

The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats
I don't know how I can not have heard of this author before. She is an amazing writer. This story is about a (very bratty) girl named Cecily is more or less kicked out of her estate and forced to live in "occupied Wales". Her father becomes one of the English "occupiers" and she ascends the social ladder. Her servant, Gwenhwyfar, a Welsh girl, has a deep hatred for the English, with good reason. The Welsh soon start to overtake the English, and "the brat", as Gwen calls her, gets a look at her life from the opposite side. Coats has amazing characters. The way that she writes correctly portrays every feeling that her two main characters go through with such detail that you can feel what they feel surprisingly accurately. The plot is also good--the whole book is very well written historical fiction overall. I love reading historical fiction that isn't just fact after fact after fact after fact after fact. Its a hard task, and I think that J. Anderson Coats does it extremely well. 

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
The tagline on the cover of this book: "If you're lost, you might need to swim against the tide." Ugh. Before reading this, I thought this would be a corny feel-good book. So it was a pleasant surprise when I discovered characters that I related to, an unconventional plot, and overall, the opposite of what I was expecting. The story is about a 12-year-old girl named Willow Chance, adopted at birth and evolved into nothing less than a prodigy. In her twelfth year, both of her parents are killed in a car accident. She is taken in by new friends and a school counselor who hates his job. I know that the plot sounds pretty simple, but all the little details that Sloan slips in are what makes it special. The book is written in broken sentence/list format sometimes, which I liked. It conveyed the rushing-ness of the human thought.

That's it, everybody. I hoped that you enjoyed and HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYBODY YAY THIS IS MY LAST POST EVER OF 2013 AUSPICIOUS MOMENTS.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

5 Questions with Lois Lowry

A while ago, I had the incredible chance to have an (email) chat with none other than Lois Lowry! I asked her a couple of questions about her Giver series, and she provided me with some eloquent answers. Here they are! I've also provided the links to the individual books of the quartet at the bottom.

HF: I feel that the Young-Adult-Dystopian genre seems to be inspired by The Giver series--it certainly was my first glance into that world. When you wrote The Giver, were you looking to find a new audience or access your existing audience in a different way?

LL:No, I never think about the audience when I am writing. I simply tell the story that is appearing in my head. I had no thoughts at all about dystopia, or science fiction, or fantasy. I was thinking about memory…how it works, how it affects us…when the boy appeared, with a story to tell.

HF: I was struck by the way Claire and her child were handled by the society in the novel Son. Does this reflect on your views about how circumstances could inform a woman's ability to keep her child or give him/her away?

LL: I had four children before I was 26, back in the late 50s and early 60s, so I know a great deal from experience of what a woman's/mother's role was thought to be at that time. And I have lived a long life since then, so I have watched cultural attitudes shift and change.  SON doesn't deal with a woman's right to keep or relinquish a child, but rather with loss….and what it night do to a woman to have a child wrested away. It ponders the question of state control over reproduction, and how that might affect the basic instincts of most women.

HF: When I read the part in The Giver about how the society rid the world of pain, war, discrimination and such, but at the same time taking away color, light, and real feelings, I felt that it was your way of saying evil is also part of human life. Do you think that this is true, and if so, is it a message that you think that young people will be able to hear?

LL: I think the juxtaposition of good/bad in the world is something that kids know and are familiar with from the time they are very young. Throughout history, art and music and literature have all arisen form  deep pain But there are parents, i think, who try very hard to keep that knowledge from children…hence, the challenging and banning of books that some parents find too "dark" or "troubling."  Yet fairy tales from earliest times deal with the existence of evil in the world.  Reading about things that frighten us is a way of preparing our responses…rehearsing, in a way.

HF: Your books in The Giver series are all about how children taking on roles that should really be done by adults. ( i.e. Jonas taking on the memories of the world, Kira holding the past of the world, Matty being a messenger for an entire network of villages, Claire being a mother at 14, etc. ) do you think that the children of this generation are growing up too fast?

LL: The world has become very complex and today's kids must prepare to enter it armed, more now than when i was young. And many political leaders of today—I suppose this has perhaps always been true—are self-absorbed and corrupt. In contrast, young people tend to be idealistic and uncorrupted. In these books, each of the protagonists you mention has a genuine desire to save and heal the world. I like the idea of the young uncorrupted hero/heroine taking on that challenge, and even the burdens that come with it.

HF: If you could recommend 3-5 books that young people should reads before they graduate from high school, which books would you pick?

LL: I would change my mind many times. But right now? I think every young person should read A Fort of Nine Towers, by Qais Akbar Omar, a memoir of growing up in Afghanistan which gives a  passionate and detailed portrait of  a culture we do not adequately understand.  Also: The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien  ("a ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling")  My Antonia, by Willa Cather.  Dreams from my Father, by Barack Obama. and Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver. Everyone knows it. It's one of the most famous books of our generation. An amazing world of ethics and control is created by the talented Lois Lowry. This well-crafted story is one of my favorites, so I'd like to review it here.
       I first read this in the third grade, when I asked my then 14-year-old sister to give me a really good book, and she handed me this one. I started reading this book and I didn't stop until I was finished. (I mean, except to eat dinner, because everyone knows how hard that would be.) I even sat on the floor of our bathroom and read it when I was supposed to be brushing my teeth--maybe that's why I have braces. WHY DID YOU HAVE TO WRITE SUCH A GOOD BOOK, MS. LOWRY? But seriously. 
      For those of you who don't know, The Giver is about a future world where life is so controlled that people's partners, jobs, and even kids are chosen for them. Jonas, the main character is chosen to have all of the world's memories taken upon his shoulders. The story is about how he chooses to deal with this.    
      I recently re-read this book last year, when our whole grade was required to read it. (Since I had already read it in the bathroom earlier, I got to read #3 in the quartet, Messenger) I was amazed how well Lowry brought the character of Jonas together. He was so well written: just the right portrayal of that 12-year-old feeling of wanting to be older, but not really. I think that Ms. Lowry captured the way that a person on the cusp of "teenagerhood,"--a place where people will start to expect more of you--may feel, in a very interesting way. She created a complex world around that feeling. Jonas' job is to be the person who guides the leaders of his society with the memories of the entire world, so no one else has to have the negative effects of remembering things like war, pain, or even sunburn. But with this seemingly effective solution, comes the forgetting of things like climate, colors, love, or a boat sailing on a still lake. I don't want to ruin the ending for any young (or old, don't want to be prejudiced here) readers that still haven't read it, but I just want to say--you won't look at the world the same way after reading this book.

Monday, October 14, 2013

In Commemoration of A Parting

This is a piece I wrote in school, and I'm publishing it here in commemoration of my grandmother, who passed away four years ago yesterday. 

I had been wearing black. It was kind of ironic, actually, that I was already clothed in the cheerless color. But that day, as I entered my third grade classroom, the clothes weren’t worn sadly, at least not yet. I had dressed up in my older sister’s hand me fuzzy black sweater and my favorite yoga pants. I must have thought I looked cool, like a spy or something. I vividly remember sitting there on the carpet at the end of the day, tall and proud in my “slick” outfit as our teacher read to us.
          I boarded the bus, and as we screeched to a halt and the driver opened the doors with the trademark hiss, I felt something was wrong. My father was standing there, still in his work clothes. That was extremely unusual, as he worked until 5:30 pm and it was only 4. But my younger sister didn’t seem to think much of it, so for a while, neither did I. He probably came home for lunch or something. As we entered the house, my younger sister’s mindless, shrieking chatter still echoing in my ears (as her LOUD shrieks often did), my father cleared his throat.
          “I have some very sad news,” he said.
Oh no. I knew it. Our cat had been getting older and slower. But before I could start shrieking, my father had some more news to deliver.
“Ammi-Ammi (my grandmother) has passed away.”
Looking back on it, it had sounded like he was reading from a script. But how do you really explain the concept of “parting from this world” to those who are only beginning to understand it?
My head began to spin. Dead? My sister and I wore matching expressions of confusion, then, all at once, everything clicked. I dropped my bag down on the floor and walked slowly up to my room, closed the door, and folded up in my red desk chair.
I hope that I will never sob the way I did that day. Ammi-Ammi, my maternal grandmother, was dear to me. She was soft and cuddly, the way all grandmothers are. She was delicate, with small feet and a love for things like flowers, violet perfumes, and fragrant powders. She was feisty and endearingly silly at times. All these things came flooding back to me, and I was suddenly hateful of my black outfit. Why? Whywhywhywhywhy was the question I repeated to myself as I sobbed. After I had cried myself dry, I just sat there. And that is the worst kind of sorrow. When you cry, you at least have something to focus on. But when those tears are dry, you have to face the reason.
After I had collected myself into a reasonable heap of misery, I plonked downstairs and sat in my father’s lap. Just then, my mother came rushing out of her closet. And I will only say one thing: I have only ever been able to put a face to anguish once, and it is hers.


Monday, October 7, 2013

Whether They're Designer or Hand-Me-Downs, Walk In Them

      At our school, we recently sat together as a student body and listened to a motivational speaker by the name of Dr. Michael Fowlin, also known as Mykee. He left us with the phrase, "Don't do what you should do--do what you need to do." He bowed toward us, hands clasped, pleading that we would walk away with something after this performance. As we were leaving the auditorium, I remarked to my friend, "I don't think that they probably took anything away from that," nodding toward the giggly group of crop-top and "short-short" clad girls. If anyone else heard that, they most likely would think that I didn't either. 
     Although I don't consider myself at the bottom of the wretched social ladder that divides middle-school, I am most certainly far from the top. But even so, does that automatically make my remarks upon the groups above me "non-nasty" or something to be agreed with, whereas if they said the same sentence, it would be considered snarky or spiteful? Although I know that I am not mean (or at least I hope that I'm not), I sometimes wish I could take away those casual remarks that fall from my lips as judgements that I know I wouldn't want to be at the recieving end of.
     So let's talk about this "other" species. Yes, they may have more money than I do, or more friends, and yes, they can be mean. But I don't think that makes them any better or worse than me. Neither of us has the right to pass judgements on the other. After all, we were all born as slippery, wailing babies, weren't we? (Unless you're like me, and was born with a pitful, pathetic mewl rather than a robust roar.) We all have differences. We should all respect those differences. 
     I am not trying to justify people being able to bully others because of their social status. I am simply sending out a request as Dr. Mykee did--"Don't judge me," the phrase that is added jokingly by all people after revealing something strange that they do, has a deeper meaning. I write this as an apology to all those I have passed judgements against and as a hopeful message to others that they will not do the same. Walk a mile in somebody else's shoes. Whether they are designer 3-inch platforms and really hurt your feet, or the most torn up sneakers you've ever seen, retain judgement until you do.


Monday, August 26, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

It is rare that you see a young-adult novel that is simply about people. Even if this kind of novel does make it's way into the dystopian-fantasy-dominated YA shelves, it is usually pushed to the side to make way for fantasy books like Matched, Uglies, and Twilight. (Don't get me wrong, these are good books, too. They are just catering more to what teens want, instead of branching out.) So I was surprised to see the round yellow sticker on the front of The Fault in Our Stars, (Dutton Books, 2012) announcing that this book was a #1 New York Times Bestseller. It didn't have a flashy picture on the cover--instead, two simple clouds announced the title and author. But what was inside was pure gold.

This novel is about a girl named Hazel Grace Lancaster, diagnosed at the age of thirteen with a thyroid cancer that spread to her lungs.  She is hooked up to an oxygen tank almost all of the time that helps her breathe.  Then she meets Augustus Waters, who lost his leg to osteosarcoma. They befriend each other and soon fall in love, before everything falls apart. 

Now, in any one of the novels I mentioned before, both characters would be beautiful/handsome, completely fit and healthy, and then they would fall in love and go through all of these hardships to be able to be in love. (ex. Bella Swan and Edward Cullen of Twilight.) Not one of those people would be hooked up to an oxygen tank or one-legged, because that isn't what appeals to the public. People like reading about these perfect people because they themselves aren't perfect. We like things without flaws. But reading about other people who have faults and imperfections just like us is so much more interesting. And it is those faults that make Augustus and Hazel Grace so much more beautiful than Bella and Edward and their perfect little daughter. This book was honest in a way that I've never seen before. It included the corny things that normal people would say, instead of the perfect way that characters talk in other YA novels. An example:

"As the seats around the gate began to fill, Augustus said, "I'm gonna get a hamburger before we leave. Can I get you anything?"
     "No," I said, 'but I really appreciate your refusal to give in to breakfasty social conventions."
He tilted his head at me, confused. "Hazel has developed an issue with the ghettoization of scrambled eggs," Mom said.
     "It's embarrassing that we all just walk through life blindly accepting that scrambled eggs are fundamentally associated with mornings."
     " I want to talk about this more," Augustus said. "But I am starving. I'll be right back."

These little bits and pieces are what make this novel perfectly human. It shows all sides of people, love, happiness, "corny-ness", heartbreak, and utter sorrow. We all experience this in ways that only a simply human person can. And so, I close this with one simple message. Humans, however much they don't care to admit it, will always relate more to a normal, not particularly special character than some fantastical creature. And that is why The Fault in Our Stars is so successful. It is a book with a simple yet powerful message about what goes on between humans.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

5 Questions with Mr. Dwayne Betts

Some may recall the post I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Mr. Dwayne Betts' book, A Question of Freedom. I had some questions at the end, and I decided to email Mr. Betts. His answers provide very interesting material to think about after you read the book. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

HF: What audience did you hope would read your book, A Question of Freedom, and why?

MR. DB:  Not sure people write with audiences in mind. About 600,000 people live in DC. Say I just want 10%. Already that's a number most poets will never see for a single book. But let's say I imagine 60,000 people are interested - now will I begin to look at my audience based on race? On class? Based on geography? Already it's hopeless, and I've yet to consider age, sex, whether or not they understand how awesome Tracy Chapman is. Audience, to me, is a gift. You write what you want and maybe you have a few people in mind, friends, colleagues - but mostly I'm writing for me. Selfish as that sounds.

HF: Which was worse: how you felt while in prison, or the physicality of being in prison?

MR. DB: Probably both, but then that wouldn't be answering your question. Let's say how I felt. The physicality, I held up well. Mentally though, prison was a drain.

HF: You now have a book of poetry out; did you write it while in prison? If not, was some of it inspired by your experience there? 

MR. DB: I wrote the poetry after prison. It's hard to say what inspired the poems. Prison. Freedom. My fascination with four leaf clovers. A few poems are just out of anger, one out of love. One because Terrence Johnson killed himself. There is a poem driven by the notion of lifting weighs. One because of George Herbert's "Prayer." I wish I had a better answer but really the poems come from breathing and usually there is no rhyme or reason to the individual breath. Maybe.

HF: Did you ever feel that some of the people you met in prison deserved a less severe sentence, particularly the younger ones?

MR. DB: Most people deserved shorter sentences. The sentences men and women get in the United States are mostly absurd and mostly demonstrate the insanity of our system. I know people with 30,40 years for non homicide and non rape offenses. For robbery. There are people with life for non violent offenses. More than that the sentences are often arbitrary. 30 years in one case becomes 10 in another. The Supreme Court recently said men can't be given mandatory life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles and some of these men, when they went back to court to be re sentenced, were sentenced to 60 years without the possibility of parole. That's obnoxious. Fortunately, some state appeals courts have pushed back on that - but not all. And sadly what I've said doesn't scratch the surface.

HF: Are there things in the outside world that remind you of the time that you were in prison?

MR. DB: Everything reminds me of prison, if I let it. Some things you don't forget, friends still incarcerated being one. So my freedom reminds me of their confinement. I'm going to law school; there is no authentic way for me to think about the law and not think about prison. I get letters from folks. Anyway, prison is a kind of echo that sometimes gets faint, so faint that I cannot hear it. Then, it shouts and I'm reminded it was always present.

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty

Beginnings are everything. Some can be fabulous, others terrible, and others just plain boring. The beginning of A Corner of White (Panmacmillan Australia, September 2012) was a bit...quirky. Some might have dropped the book before really getting into the plot, because the main character had a bit of an unbelievable life. The book is told from two perspectives, one person in the real world and one in a fantasy one, and I almost thought that both were fantasy because the real world one was so strange. People were reading other people's auras and such. But once you get past that, A Corner of White is really quite a good book. 

In the real world, Madeline lives in London. She wishes she could return to her former life as the daughter of a rich man who had everything she ever wanted. Somewhere other than this earth, Elliot lives in the Kingdom of Cello, where attacks from colors are becoming more and more frequent. (These colors are physical things that I thought of as clouds of violence. They don't actually come wielding knives and other weapons, but the results are the same.) One day, both Madeline and Elliot discover a crack between their worlds, and begin a correspondence that sparks something in both Madeline herself and Elliot's entire world.

It's very important to me when I read a novel that it has a plot that isn't copied from other novels. If it has concepts that are imitations, it feels fake and half-baked. This was definitely not the case with this book. The plot and settings were like nothing I have ever seen before. (I say settings because the story goes back and forth between two different worlds). There was such creativity in the characters, especially in the composition of Madeline, one of two main characters. She is sort of the queen of quirks. She always wears colorful clothes, and has lived almost every exotic place that you can think of, even though she now resides in an "attic flat". She wasn't very nice, either. She was pleasant and polite, but it didn't really come from the heart. That was something that, ironically, made me like her, because she was imperfect. So many main characters are perfect, and it was nice to find someone who needed corrections here. Here's an excerpt: 

"She told them the memory while they ate scones under the apple trees, deck chairs slung low to the ground. 
      "I was riding a skateboard -- we were all on skateboards -- going down a hill."
      " Where was this?" said Belle, eyes closed. 
      "Genoa. In Italy. We were there for a summer. I was going fast -- I was ahead of the others and the hill was steep. The road swerved and suddenly there was an intersection with cars flying in both directions. So I jumped off the skateboard. And that was when I realized how fast I was going. I did that thing where your feet go --" 
She stopped and drummed her fists on the table. 
     "No. Wait. It was faster than that, more like --" 
This time she drummed her fingers instead, fingernails clicking like a typist, fingers tangling and tripping one another. 
     "You know, when your feet are in a panic, trying to catch up with your body." 
She paused. 
     "I came so close to falling," she said. "But I didn't. I saved myself."
She broke a scone in half, spread it with jam, and took a bite. 
     "That's it? That's the memory?" Belle sat up, and nearly lost control of her deckchair.
     "No. There was a six-car pile-up. While I was saving myself, my skateboard rolled onto the highway."
     "Oh, all right, then." Belle regained her chair's composure, and closed her eyes again. Jack hit the side of Belle's head. "Oh, all right then? A six-car bloody pile-up? Oh, all right, then?
Madeline laughed, then looked thoughtful. 
     "Nobody was hurt," she said. "Except the cars, I guess."

I don't know, but I think that if I caused a six-car pile-up (even a one-car pile-up, for that matter), I would feel at least a bit guilty. Certainly more guilty than "except the cars, I guess". These are the flaws that make her likeable to a reader, if not her friends: she doesn't know anything of the world's troubles, or even anything of empathy. She's so likeable because you get to watch her change throughout the story. On a bit of a different note, I think that I would have liked to learn more about Elliot. His world was so interesting, and I think that he was a very complex character. Maybe in the next book of this trilogy we'll learn more.

If you hate fantasy, don't read this book. However, if you like interesting characters, than you should give it a try. It is a great book about how people can change, with a very intriguing plot. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm off to search for a crack in this world. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Milk of Birds by Sylvia Whitman

Talk about motivational books. I recived The Milk of Birds (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, April 2013) as an ARC  (Advance Reader's Copy) but it has since been officially published. This book has definitely been added to my Top Ten list of favorites. The best thing about it was that the characters were very well constructed. Nawra, a girl in Sudan who went through a terrible experience, is now at a refugee camp in Darfur. K.C. is a young girl in America, experiencing the transition to high school with terrible grades and being as she calls it, "a loser." These girls are paired together through a program called Save the Girls, a program that provides girls who escaped villages that were attacked with money and correspondence from a donor in America. Nawra's village is one of these. And so the story starts, a correspondence across the world.

First of all, Nawra and K.C. are both such strong characters. It was great to see two main female characters who weren't waif-ish and dependent on someone else. Nawra always went through terrible situations and made the best of them, coming out stronger. And K.C., even though she struggled so hard in school and required summer school to pass eighth grade, she managed to joke and have fun with her friends and start a great movement, inspired by Nawra's situation. I can't applaud Ms. Whitman enough. One of my favorite excerpts from the book is the following. 

"It is gray now, no sun left behind the clouds.
    "You are tired, Tata?" Little Zeinab asks.
    "She is braver than she is tired," says Big Zeinab. "I see a lion beneath those clothes. It is my turn now to tell stories. "
She speaks of her daughter's wedding, the meeting of families, the preparation of a feast. I cannot tell my ears to listen as well as my legs to walk, so the story comes and goes. But Big Zeinab's voice is a rope that I keep my hand upon as we move forward in the starless dark."

(That was Nawra.) Can you see how she keeps walking, even though she is about to go through a terrible ordeal? Meanwhile, K.C., back in the States, reads what is happening to Nawra in one of her letters, starts calling her mother and they both go to Save the Girls to see what they can do. Not many people would go THAT far to help a friend. This is a glimpse of the kind of person K.C. becomes after exchanging letters with Nawra. I won't say what is happening to Nawra, but it's a big surprise! 

This book was amazing. It was so motivational and it actually inspired me to do something, after reading about K.C.'s work. I encourage all of you to read The Milk of Birds. It is very well written and the topics are ones that I think everyone should learn about. And who knows? Maybe after reading, you'll try to find a pen pal like Nawra.


Monday, July 8, 2013

A Question of Freedom by R. Dwayne Betts

When you look at the cover of A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, (Avery, 2009) you see a picture of the author, R. Dwayne Betts. Most people would think that he was a smart, educated man. Which is what he is! Nobody would assume that he had once gone to prison, because his picture differs in so many ways from the stereotypical image of what a former prisoner looks like. And really, this is what his book is about: questioning what freedom means once you don't have it.
A Question of Freedom is about how R. Dwayne Betts is sent to prison at the age of sixteen, and given a sentence of nine years. His crime was carjacking a man. A theme that keeps popping up in the book is thirty. How thirty minutes of "joyriding" landed him in jail. That thirty seconds it took to threaten the sleeping man whose car he stole. With a gun. And how much he regrets it. 

The book itself was well written and I think that it got Mr. Betts' message across. The book was more of a question about society than a book about prison, so if you don't like ethics and philosophy, this might not be a good read for you. The beginning and the end are where he really talked about his life, so those were the most "action-filled" parts of the book. The middle of the book talked a lot about how the author felt, having cellmates, each of a different ethnicity, being in isolation, or the cell, and being changed between prisons of different securities. The book kind of follows the style of describing an event, and then describing how he felt about it.
One event that really stood out to me was when he started to learn Spanish so he could talk to his cellmates that spoke that language. He studied with a  cellmate who spoke Spanish for about three hours a day until he could converse with his Spanish-speaking aquaintances. It was so touching that instead of lying there thinking about his doom, he feels the barrier between him and his cellmates: language. He says that prison is one of the most diverse places he's ever been. I found that interesting, the fact that it was so diverse that it could earn that title. 
While reading about Dwayne's cellmates' sentences, I was shocked. They had recieved HUGE sentences for crimes that, in my opinion, deserved at least a tiny bit less time. I was so intruiged about how it felt looking back at a crime. From the outside, people in prison look mean, like people that are always defined by what they did to get them there. But reading this book gave me a great perspective of how sorry people might be. And I think that the long sentence won't make you any sorrier. Sure, you need to be extreme to make sure they don't repeat themselves. But couldn't they have a person who worked with the prisoners, someone who gaged a sense of if they were ready for release? I don't know. Something. But reading this book made me a whole lot sorrier for the people, the teenagers, trapped behind those bars.

 As I said before, the book includes a lot of writing about what prison felt like, not the actual events of the prison. Personally, I felt myself starting to skim while reading the middle, because that was where Dwayne (the author) had done most of his explaining. Explaining, in the sense, that he was explaining an event and his feelings about it. It might appeal to sixteen-year-olds, because that was Dwayne's age when he first entered prison. They might be able to more easily relate to his thoughts then I could, being younger. It might also prevent teens from committing crimes like the one Dwayne did, because they would have a little bit of perspective of really having no question of being free, at least for a while if not their whole life. A Question of Freedom is a book written for adults, but I think if you are advanced enough to read it in your teens and you feel ready to read this kind of book, then you should. If you are under 14, I would advise checking with your parents about it first. If you do read it, I hope you enjoy the questions posed and really start to think about them. Think about a question of freedom.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Society's Unrealistic Portrayal of Women

This is an essay that i wrote in school: I wanted to share it here.

           You know that you’ve seen them. On television or in an advertisement, with their perfect lips, huge eyes, long necks, and radiant hair, they’re all that most girls want to be. Society has created a monster that overpowers all desire to be individual. This monster makes young, lovely girls starve themselves to mimic that it. It causes girls to be the victim of bullying because they don’t fit this pretty image. It educates generations on one specific way to look, instead of embracing differences and diversity. Yet this monster doesn’t exist. It is simply a warped vision of what is beautiful. This monster is an “attractive” woman. Society needs to portray women in a more realistic way, so that everyone might one day fit under the definition of “beautiful.”
           To start, lots of girls want to look like models. Unfortunately, most models have an eating disorder; as a result many of the girls that look up to them have an eating disorder too. Society lets girls starve just to mimic these disgustingly skinny people. You may be wondering what an eating disorder is.  Well, according to the medical dictionary of dictionary.com, an eating disorder is “a potentially life-threatening neurotic condition, such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia, usually seen in young women.” If you haven’t heard of it, anorexia is when young girls develop a distorted view of their body and starve themselves, sometimes to death. Bulimia is when they throw up or use laxatives after eating a large meal so that they don’t actually digest anything. These and many other disorders threaten the lives of young girls and women every day. Seven million women in America have an eating disorder. Only 30%-40% of anorexics will fully recover. That means that 60%-70% will deal with anorexia (once they develop it) for their entire lives. And these disorders don’t only affect the person, either. It affects the whole family and the person’s friends. An eating disorder will sometimes require excessive counseling and/or family counseling. Do you like eating dinner and having amicable conversations? Families with an anorexic or bulimic member will often have long conversations and fights over dinner and meals. It literally kills: 5%-10% of people die after 10 years of being anorexic and 18%-20% die after 20. 80% of thirteen year-olds have tried to lose weight. Got that? 13. They already have the stress of growing up and finding themselves. Society morphs young minds to model celebrities, even if it kills them. For example, almost ¾ of all female actresses in sitcoms are underweight. Take video games: The women there are portrayed as “gorgeous” and often dressed in revealing costumes. Their waists are about 5 inches wide. I find it disgusting that, even though producers, fashion designers, and advertisers know what they are doing, they continue to do it. Many girls starve themselves in the quest for what, in this society, is unreachable: being pretty.
              When you go to school, have you ever been called a “metal-mouth” because you have braces? A nerd, because you need to wear glasses? Maybe even a robot because you have a prosthetic. Why? Because everyone looks up to the small minority that is beautiful. The people who look like those girls on television. People are bullied because of their minor flaws. But people are prettier with them: it makes us unique, who we are. Who wants to look like a malnourished stick? Not me. For some reason, though, the young people of the world think that that thin, starving girl is the ultimate definition of beautiful. People don’t want braces or headgear or acne or glasses or any minor cosmetic flaw or corrector, because they feel that they won’t be liked or might get bullied. Do you have braces? 80% of adolescents do too. Why do people think that the 20% of people who don’t have them are “cool” or “attractive”? People shouldn’t be judged according to a standard. Do you think Lady Gaga is good-looking? When she was younger, she was bullied because she had a big nose. Now she’s a pop star! Who cares about the size of her nose? In England and Wales, girls between the ages of 15 and 22 were surveyed. 56% were abused physically or verbally, or cyber-bullied because of their weight, height, or hair color. 97% of a surveyed body of women had at least one time where they hated their body. Why? Why does society let women hate themselves? Everyone should be loved and love themselves for who they are. For some stupid reason, everyone wants to be that girl on television. It’s cruel to try and filter out that small minority that is supposedly beautiful and culling all the rest.
While you’re out with your family and you see someone who is different, perhaps you’ve heard your younger siblings ask, “Why are they like that, Mommy?” Even though they don’t know any better at that age, we’ve educated them to see an appearance as something to define the person instead of just accepting that they’re the same inside. To see one specific way to look, instead of embracing and accommodating diversity, differences, and disabilities. Many young girls are thought of as weird because they are overweight or have a disability. But they’re not defined by that the same way that models are defined by their looks; that’s possibly the only thing the models have got going for them. Agatha Christie had epilepsy and dyslexia. Now the girl who might have been made fun of because of her disabilities is an amazing writer, almost the hardest thing to do with dyslexia. Cameron Diaz had OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Julia Roberts had a stutter when she was younger. Now she’s a famous actress, delivering lines smoothly. These wonderful women have overcome their disabilities and like them, many young girls are smart, artistic, eloquent, and funny, but we still seem to zoom in on their differences and develop pointless judgments. We look up and compare ourselves to models that don’t exist; they’re airbrushed and changed out of reality. We can’t seem to overcome the falsehood that women are defined by their appearance; doesn’t that seem twisted?
 Society needs to portray women in a more realistic way. Before girls give up their lives in an endless quest to be skinny. Before people are victimized because of their temporary cosmetic correctors.  Before generations upon generations discriminate against people irrevocably. Step up to help us change the idea of beauty in this world. Do it for the starving girls, the bullied ones, and the next generation. Because everyone is beautiful, and we need to learn to acknowledge it.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

To the Two, Limited, Basketball-Playing Boys In My Class

Okay. So, do you ever talk about sports in class? And when you say that you dance, the people in your class say "Oh, that's not a sport." YES IT IS! Why are people so nearsighted?
First, it takes a lot to be a dancer. You have to be very strong, and do exercises and stretches just like in any other sport. You have to be able to move quickly and lightly. If you do several types of dance, maneuver your body in different ways:  you have to move sharply (as in hip-hop), or be graceful and fluid (as in ballet and modern). Sometimes you have to do both in the same style of dance!
So you're thinking, it's just a hobby. Have you heard of the New York City Ballet? They literally dance for a living. Dancing, if you really love it, can evolve into so much more than just an activity you sign up for because your schedule is free. It can become your life. Think about it: professional football players have a very large part of their life taken up by football. So why can't dancers have their so-called "hobby" be a large part of theirs? Maybe we should just start saying that Kobe Bryant's position on The Lakers is just a hobby. Hmm? Ohhhhhh, so that's not a hobby, but Tyler Angle's position on the New York City Ballet is. Because that makes so much sense. Is this just a hobby? Oh, maybe this huge, famous show (So You Think You Can Dance) is just for people doing it as a hobby. Oh, and both of the people dancing in that link were boys. Please. Don't even get me started on all of that sexism: "Oh, it's not a sport because girls do it. And boys don't dance." (You'll have to imagine the nasal voice that I'm picturing.)
Have you ever even come close to dancing? If you have, and you still think it's not a sport, read the above paragraphs again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Get the idea? But if you haven't ever tried dancing, why are you developing these misguided opinions on it? (And yes, I have tried basketball, soccer, and floor hockey. Even if they are in gym class, I still know what it is to play them.) I know that I am extremely opinionated. But I'm not saying that 2+2=5. Now that would be debatable. I'm simply stating that, although dance isn't in the Olympics and that it doesn't have many rules, dancers will always be athletes. So, whether you are a football or a basketball player, whether you are Kobe Bryant or a boy who doesn't, and won't, believe me, dance will remain an amazing sport. One of my favorites, I might add.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Out of Nowhere and Does My Head Look Big in This?

Outside and Inside. That was the difference between Out of Nowhere, by Maria Padian, (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2013)and Does My Head Look Big in This? (Orchard Books, 2007) by Randa Abdel-Fattah. They are both about the Muslim religion, but in the latter, the main character is actually a girl who follows the faith. The first book is about a high-school senior learning to understand the religion from the outside. I think that Does My Head Look Big in This? was directed toward a younger audience, maybe 6th-8th grade. (I did find it in my middle-school library, after all.) It had many elements that middle-schoolers might relate to, such as crushes, heartbreak, bullies, and body-image. But it also threw in a different dynamic: a young girl, named Amal, decides to wear the hijab. I found it inspiring that she had all her own reasons for doing this: she made the choice. She had to convince her parents to let her, because they were worried about the discrimination she might face. Her principal found it strange that her parents hadn't forced her. Amal felt that wearing the hijab made her closer to God. I'll include an excerpt.

"I'm terrified. But at the same time I feel like my passion and conviction in Islam are bursting inside me and I want to prove to myself that I'm strong enough to wear a badge of my faith. I believe it will make me feel so close to God. Because it's pretty hard to walk around with people staring at your "towel-head" and not feel kind of pleased with yourself--if you manage to get through  the stares and comments with your head held high. That's when this warm feeling buzzes through you and you smile to yourself, knowing God's watching you, knowing He knows you're trying to be strong to please him. Like you're both i on a private joke and something special and warm and extraordinary is happening and nobody else in the world knows about it because it's your own experience, your own personal friendship with your Creator. I guess when I'm not wearing the hijab I feel like I'm missing out. I feel cheated out of that special bond."

I found that her closeness to her religion was so inspiring: the fact that she would go through the "stares and comments" because it made her bond stronger with her God. In the middle of the book, I felt that Abdel-Fattah decided to focus less on the hijab and more on the budding relationship between Amal and her friend Adam. At the end, I felt that the hijab was brought back into the plot line, partly because of a blowout between Adam and Amal. I loved how, when Adam tries to kiss her, Amal pushes him away, because she doesn't want to be with anyone but the person she marries. She wants to share that special feeling with only one person. I found her belief in her religion so amazing, even though the fact that she and Adam were never the same was kind of a letdown, because you're always thinking to yourself, come on.....he has to get the girl! That's how it works! Still, I guess it was refreshing to have a part of a plot line that finally didn't center on that Disney-themed kiss that always morphs into a wedding and then they have little children and smile at each other and kiss again. Overall, this book was very good and I would reccomend it as about 9 out of 10.
Now, onto Out of Nowhere. This may be directed more towards a 8th-9th grade audience, as it deals with subjects that might not be appreciated or related to by younger folks. It is a very well-written and thoughtful book. In the following I quote the back of the hardcover edition of the book.

"High school senior Tom Bouchard has it all. Popular. Soccer team captain. Third in his class. Hot girlfriend. Then he meets people who have almost nothing. Refugees. Rescued from a homeland turned war zone. In a country that doesn't understand them. And, out of nowhere, everything starts to change."

I felt that this book went a bit deeper than the first one, because of how the perspective of Tom Bouchard (the main character) and many others changed when they learned more about the Muslim religion. it's not perfect. They still sometimes don't understand Ramadan, and don't understand the prayers, but they gradually come to terms with whether they should let that get in the way of the friendship with the people who follow this religion. It was amazing to feel the changing emotions of the different characters. In the end, Tom feels bad for one of his Muslim soccer teammate's sister, because that same teammate is missing. He hugs her, forgetting that that is against her religion. She and her family disappear, because Tom's former girlfriend, Cherisse, takes a picture of the hug and posts it on Facebook with a derogatory caption. Their family also disappears because of a rival soccer team's challenge of Saeed's (The aforementioned soccer teammate) eligibility on their high school soccer team. The ending is heartbreaking, yet I couldn't put this book down. I would definitely read it!

So. If you were challenged to pick one of these books, I would pick Out of Nowhere, because of the depth and tenderness of it. Does My Head Look Big in This? is a lighter read, but they are both still good. I would even read both of them and see which one you like better!