John

I've been working as an amateur father with a son since 2000. Several years later I was informed that, due to my adequate fathering skills, I would be promoted to a second child. In addition to my son I've been working with a daughter since 2003. In the interest of full disclosure I will admit that mistakes have been made. However, they do not hate me yet so I am allowed to continue in my current role.

Sep 102014
 

When choosing books my son’s inclination is to gravitate toward books for younger readers. This is only natural seeing as how he enjoys the company of – and is very popular with – younger kids. As parents, Merran and I are of course happy to encourage his continued youthful outlook since no parent we know is eager for their kids to grow up too fast. But when he was looking for books to read as part of his 7th grade reading assignments I felt the need to point out that NERDS: Book Two: M Is for Mama’s Boy, while an entertaining confection, was a little on the young side.*

The World of Jeeves

It’s my fault he enjoys stories of urbane characters who drink to excess.

This is a problem not only for school work but as school work I felt the books on his list should be more challenging. To this end I went back to a list of the ten best young adult books provided by the American Library Association via his Language Arts teacher.

You may remember that I was recently bitching and moaning about the definition of Young Adult fiction and I’m happy to say the American Library Association has a pretty good grasp of the books that actually belong in this category. I did a quick survey and checked the availability at our local library of books that I thought would hold some interest for him.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein seemed like a good candidate. While the story focuses on young women in wartime (two subjects that are, for our son, unfathomable and unsavory respectively) it is about an aviator and a spy (two subjects that are deeply fascinating to him). It’s on the short-list for now.

The other title that jumped out at me was Every Day by David Levithan. It’s about a character “A” who wakes up every day in a new body living a different life. It struck me that this one, like all of my favorite fiction, takes a fantastical element and uses it as a metaphor. Adolescence is a time of such radical change that the idea of waking up as a different person every day makes a certain kind of sense. And the emotional connections you make give you the motivation to make sense of those changes and hold on to the parts that will help you to grow up. My son is working on this one right now and so far it’s going very well.

When we picked up Every Day from the library we also grabbed a copy of Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith. It’s about a young African-American woman during World War II, a trifecta of subjects you would think might be difficult for our young white male pacifist to relate to; but it has something that trumps all other subjects – it’s about pilots and flying. When flight is involved all other concerns drop away. It could be about an anthropomorphic tortoise who pilots a Zeppelin and he would be drawn to it. Actually, he would love that particular combination beyond all reason.

While it’s good to have a starting point, an area of interest, that helps with the selection of a book I think it’s important to push kids out of their comfort zone once in a while. It doesn’t have to be One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich** but they should try new genres as much as possible so they can judge fairly what they really enjoy. Our daughter didn’t know she would love sad and dramatic books until she was forced to try a few by our library’s Global Reading Challenge. You don’t want to turn them off by sitting them down with books that are too much work but an enjoyable challenge will broaden their horizons and young adult fiction these days provides many excellent opportunities.

 

*It should be noted here that the other book he is currently reading is The World of Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse. This is a boy who, starting at around age 8, has been trying on and off to read Moby Dick because it is the favorite book of the character Bone from the comic books of the same name. This literary dichotomy has been one of our son’s defining characteristics.

**Which our son is interested in reading after the question, “what is an oligarchy?” led to one of my rambling mini-history lessons, the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, and gulags.

Aug 302014
 

Title: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451

It was a pleasure to burn.

Summary:

In an American future envisioned in 1953 (that is remarkably prescient for our lives today) firemen don’t put out fires but rather act as a kind of totalitarian police force rushing to create a show by burning books (that’s not the prescient part). The protagonist, Montag, begins to question the system and after being caught stealing and reading books goes on the run.

Appropriate for:

Ages 12 and up

Some of the themes and violence may be challenging for younger readers but as the story develops it becomes a thrilling adventure as Montag is hunted by the mechanical hound. What can be interesting for parents and kids to explore are Bradbury’s themes of how media, particularly television (and by extension the Internet), can erode human relationships.

Content Warnings:

Despite the irony of occasionally being banned for the wrong reasons parents should know that there is some violence. (61 year old spoilers!) Montag kills Captain Beatty by burning him, a woman commits suicide by burning with her books, and the mechanical hound kills at least one person.

The Scoop:

Bradbury can sometimes come off as a crank complaining about television and the overwhelming pervasiveness of media but this is the real theme of the story. Book burning is simply a metaphor for the loss of ideas in his dystopian future. A future that resembles ours with giant flat-panel televisions, ear buds, social media, automatic teller machines, and the 24-hour news cycle. Everyone staring at their smart phones, while not a specific Bradubury prediction, is a good image to convey the basic idea behind the alienation his characters are experiencing at the hands of the media and their devices. I think its very telling that we have to pass laws against texting while driving to protect people from themselves and their devices. The most accurate prediction was around human behavior but it’s really just an observation extrapolated into a future full of the devices we can’t live without. When Bradbury wrote the original short story that Fahrenheit 451 was based on television was a rare novelty but it was apparently easy to see how people were obsessed with radio and movies and all he needed to do was expand that into whatever new technologies he saw coming. The really frightening thing about the book is how relevant it is to our lives today. We don’t have firemen burning books but we have a lot of the rest of it. This is Fahrenheit 451. Welcome to the future.

Do you agree or disagree with my assessment or have something to add?

Scroll down just a little…the comments are Right There!

Let me know what you think.

Aug 252014
 

After navigating NPR’s list of the top 100 teen novels I’ve come to the realization that the Young Adult classification is a failure. You might as well call it “Boy” fiction or “Girl” fiction – although those classifications would actually work more effectively to narrow the selection. The problem is Young Adult is a cross-genre, cross-gender, cross-age classification that can encompass a staggering list of titles. As a father who wants to help his children find quality reading material I spend a fair amount of time combing the children and teen shelves of bookstores and libraries looking for interesting and engaging books. Perhaps I was distracted by the preponderance of vampire titles. Perhaps I was simply pleased that the publishing industry has been paying so much attention to the segment after the phenomenal success of Harry Potter that I wasn’t concerned at the lack of focus within the category.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret…is nowhere on this list.

But lay out a list of 100 titles side by side and the lack of focus becomes startlingly clear.

I shouldn’t complain because there’s something for everyone but it makes my job recommending the best titles difficult because you can pretty much close your eyes and throw a stone in any direction and hit something that will please one segment of the audience – but not all.

With this in mind, here are a few compelling options.
A caveat – despite all the snarky comments I’m about to lay out a lot of these books are really very good and worth reading. It’s their presence in the dumping ground of YA fiction that manifests my frustration.

From the world-wide best-selling titanic commercial success pile:
Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, etc.
You’ve no doubt heard of and most likely read all of these. A number of them also appear over on the Top Science Fiction and Fantasy list.

From the classic teen angst pile:
Catcher in the Rye, The Outsiders, Lord of the Flies, Go Ask Alice, etc.
There’s an even larger modern teen angst pile but we’ll get to that in a minute. In the meantime, go dig out that yellowed required reading copy from your box of old high school stuff. Speaking of modern teen angst…

From the John Green pile:
The Fault in Our Stars, Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, etc.
Merran became a fan of John Green after reading The Fault in Our Stars, which she felt was very well written and incredibly sad. She dipped into some of this other titles but ultimately had to move on because sad.

From the No Duh Classics pile:
To Kill a Mockingbird, Anne of Green Gables, Call of the Wild, Treasure frickin’ Island, and everything from the classic teen angst pile.
Since you’ve already got that box of old required reading out of the basement go ahead and take these out as well.

Vampire Academy

It’s like Harry Potter, with Vampires!

From the not-just-YA Science Fiction and Fantasy pile:
Lord of the Rings, Fahrenheit 451, Dune, His Dark Materials, etc.
Many of these were originally not written for young people. However Fantasy and Science Fiction are easy to tip into the Young Adult category. After all, it’s just kid stuff, right?

From the (sigh) Vampire and/or shadowhunters/demon pile:
The Mortal Instruments, Twilight, Infernal Devices, Vampire Academy (seriously?)
Blah blah, vampires, blah blah, dark forces, blah blah blah.

From the dystopian metaphor for teen social disfunction pile:
Divergent series, The Giver series, Uglies series, Delirium series, etc.
This was another epiphany from looking at all these titles side by side. This is actually a well defined sub-genre of young adult science fiction. Go figure.

From the modern teen angst pile:
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Thirteen Reasons Why, Speak, Stargirl, My Sister’s Keeper, etc. etc.
This is really what the Young Adult genre should be. Generally mainstream, generally realistic fiction about people dealing with growing up during an awkward time of life.

Aug 202014
 

According to a recent study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, even though women purchase just over 50% of all movie tickets only 13% of movies feature a cast where at least half of the characters are female. According to the study male protagonists outnumber female protagonists five to one. Need an example? Just look at The Avengers: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow. Five to one.

It’s no secret that Hollywood has a gender bias issue but for those of us who love movies and want positive role models for our daughters it can be a daunting task to find worthy women among all the guys.

Fortunately they do exist. We’ve compiled a list of female characters with specifically heroic qualities: saving the day or overcoming adversity like a superhero regardless of how ordinary or extraordinary their lives. We’ve put these in order of age recommendation youngest to oldest ages 5 to 15.

Mulan

Suck it up, Cinderella. Mulan is way better.

Mulan – Mulan (1998)
Rated G, recommended for ages 5 and up
Mulan is easily the most heroic of the Disney Princesses. She commits herself to saving her father, her family’s honor, and ultimately all of China. All she’s missing is a song as popular as “Let It Go”.

Kiki – Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Rated G, recommended for ages 5 and up
You need to find your place in the world. Sometimes that place involves honoring your commitments and being nice to people, sometimes it involves saving a friend from falling to his death from a crashed Zeppelin.

Mary Poppins – Mary Poppins (1964)
Rated G, recommended for ages 6 and up
Mary Poppins is a superhero. Of course we all know about the magical powers but she also has a wicked conceit that gives her a human edge, and that makes her “practically perfect in every way.”

Dorothy Gale – Wizard of Oz (1939)
Rated PG, recommended for ages 6 and up
All she wants is to go home and at times she’s too scared and tired to know that she’s doing the right thing, whether it’s helping her friends find their brains/heart/courage or weilding a bucket of water. The definition of a hero.

Hermione Granger – Harry Potter (2001)
Rated PG, recommended for ages 7 and up
Sure everyone focuses on Harry, he’s the “chosen one” after all, but the people who matter (Dumbledore, McGonagall, Lupin, et. al.) respect Hermione for her intelligence and good judgement. Harry can’t succeed without her.

Elastigirl and Violet – The Incredibles (2004)
Rated PG, recommended for ages 7 and up
The best superhero stories use the characters powers metaphorically and The Incredibles is a great example. Elastigirl is a strong (and very flexible) mother who takes care of the family, while the shy Violet learns that with self-confidence her abilities make her a formidable hero.

Wadjda

Strong girls in repressive societies are awesome.

Wadjda – Wadjda (2012)
Rated PG, recommended for ages 9 and up
Do you want to wear high-tops with purple laces? Do you want to ride a bike? Wadjda is the story of a girl in Saudi Arabia who just wants to live life her way despite her culture’s expectations for how women should behave.

Chihiro Ogino – Spirited Away (2001)
Rated PG, recommended for ages 9 and up
After her parents are turned into pigs Chihiro must venture into the spirit world and risk losing her identity to rescue them. It’s creepy but imaginative and rewarding.

All the players – A League of Their Own (1992)
Rated PG, recommended for ages 10 and up
An engaging feel-good baseball movie focusing on a varied buch of underdogs struggling to gain respect in a world that only thinks of them as girls. The fact that this is a story based on true events surrounding the formation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II only serves to make the story that much more bittersweet.

Paikea Apirana – Whale Rider (2002)
Rated PG-13, recommended for ages 11 and up
Paikea is the latest in the line of Maori leaders descended from the legendary Whale Rider. The problem is, she’s a girl and her traditional father can’t accept that she could be the next leader. Pai needs to break through the prejudice and prove that she is worthy of the title.

Elizabeth Bennet – Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Rated PG, recommended for ages 11 and up
If Elizabeth is going to marry it’s going to be for love. By sticking to her principles, even though it may mean she and her family could be turned out of their own home by the obsequious and unpleasant Mr. Collins, she manages to overcome her prejudice (and the wealthy and handsome Mr. Darcy his pride) so that ultimately everyone can find their happy ending.

His Girl Friday

“Walter, you’re wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way.” Old movies are awesome.

Hildy Johnson – His Girl Friday (1940)
Rated PG, recommended for ages 12 and up
Rosalind Russell didn’t think she had as many good lines as Cary Grant so she hired her own writer to punch up her dialogue. Director Howard Hawks liked what she was doing and one of the all-time great classic movie women was created.

Katniss Everdeen – The Hunger Games (2012)
Rated PG-13, recommended for ages 13 and up
Talk about overcoming adversity. Katniss sacrifices herself to save her younger sister from having to go to the teen-death-arena and uses her super archery and wilderness survival skills to win the day and become a symbol of hope for the oppressed people of Panem. Necessarily gory but undeniably heroic.

Jess – Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
Rated PG-13, recommended for ages 13 and up
Another feel-good sports movie but with soccer this time (the Women’s World Cup is coming in 2015!). Jess’ parents want her to settle down but her love of soccer becons. She needs to find the balance between her Indian ancestry and her modern British life.

Erin Brockovich – Erin Brockovich (2000)
Rated R, recommended for ages 15 and up
Erin’s super powers are being loud, tenacious, and smart. Taking down corporate polluters is the way she saves the day. She has to make sacrifices along the way and she swears like a trucker but she is an excellent example of taking what life gives you and making the most of it.

Aug 102014
 

The new Godzilla movie will be coming out on DVD in September. To prepare yourself you can while away the late summer evenings brushing up on the classics. For those of you with sharp eyes the new movie is packed with Easter eggs that make reference to the original films. However, there are over 30 films in the Godzilla franchise, running from the original in 1954 through Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004. With so many movies and monsters to choose from where do you begin? I’ve compiled a list of five films, which introduce a number of the classic monsters and are so full of cheese that the kids should have a good time. The films on this list are generally appropriate for ages 8 and up although the subject matter in some of them may be too strange or difficult for younger viewers to follow.

Godzilla (1954)

The original. It feels quite old and doesn’t have the kooky fun of a lot of the others but with Godzilla conceived as a metaphor for nuclear destruction it’s more thoughtful than most Tokusatsu*.

Mothra vs Godzilla

Don’t give in to your overwhelming terror of…um…a giant moth

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)

Everyone has a favorite Godzilla movie and/or monster and Mothra is one of the all-time greats, even though – as a giant moth – she isn’t exactly terrifying. As a classic Godzilla movie it’s hard to beat and Mothra’s entourage of miniature singing twins is, well, surreal. This is my favorite.

Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964)

After Mothra the franchise took a turn and Godzilla became the good guy battling his most formidable foe, and the one monster considered his arch nemesis, the three headed dragon monster Ghidorah. If you like Ghidorah you may also want to consider the popular 1991 film Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah.

Invasion of the Astro-Monter

We are groovy aliens. Fear us!

Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (aka Invasion of Astro-Monster, 1965)

A truly bizarre mix of science fiction and giant monster movie complete with funky aliens. After the studio decided that Godzilla was the hero the movies became increasingly goofy and strange. This one was a big jump into goofy and strange territory.

Destroy All Monsters

Seriously. All the monsters.

Destroy All Monsters (1968)

This movie was originally intended to be the final film in the franchise so the filmmakers pulled out all the stops and brought in all the monsters. It culminates in a massive battle royale featuring Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, Anguirus, Gorosaurus, Kumonga, Manda, Varan, and Ghidorah. If you’ve dipped your toes into the world of Godzilla and find yourself wanting more this mega-battle is a treat.

What did he just say?

Tokusatsu: special effects movies, literally “special filming”, most easily defined by the effects pioneered in Godzilla.

Kaiju: “monster” in Japanese, Godzilla and his pals are generally referred to as Kaiju.