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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Larger than Life Lara Lara by Dandi Daley Mackall

This isn’t about me. This story, I mean. So already you got a reason to hang it up. At least that’s what Mrs. Smith, our English teacher, says.

But the story is about ten-year-old Laney Grafton and the new girl in her class—Lara Phelps, whom everyone bullies from the minute she shows up. Laney is just relieved to have someone else as a target of bullying. But instead of acting the way a bullied kid normally acts, this new girl returns kindness for a meanness that intensifies . . . until nobody remains unchanged, not even the reader.

In a unique and multi-layered story, with equal parts humor and angst, Laney communicates the art of storytelling as it happens, with chapter headings, such as: Character, Setting, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax. And she weaves an unforgettable tale of a new girl who transforms an entire class and, in the process, reveals the best and worst in all of us.

My Review

Let me start by being totally upfront, this book is now required reading in my homeschool.  As a matter of fact, I am using it in a Creative Writing class that I teach in my local co-op as well.  It is THAT good!

Let me start with what I love.  Chapter titles like: Character, The Beginning, Villain, Setting, Dialogue, Conflict, Twist, Rising Action, Climax, and Resolution.  Not only is this a great, character building story, but it walks the reader through all of the key elements of a story and explains them from the point of view of a ten year old.  Not only that, it includes great examples of active learning as well.  For example, when Laney's teacher had them look up "suspense," she didn't understand the definition so she looked up the word "apprehension" that was in the definition, which made her look up another word until she finally understood the definition.  Way to go, Laney!

I like that this story addresses bullying without glossing it over.  Lara never makes a friend in this book.  Even Laney stays a few steps back, afraid of how others will react should she befriend Lara, despite the help Lara provides her in the story and Laney's growing respect for her.  Children this age can be very cruel and unthinking when a peer is different-especially different in a way that isn't socially acceptable.  Mackall makes sure that comes throughIt conjured up memories of my own childhood, and experiences my children shared with me during their elementary public school years.

There is a LOT of good in this story, but admittedly, there are things I did not like as well.  First was Lara's character.  This is a 300 pound 10 year old that somehow manages to keep a smile on her face and rather than respond in anger or display her hurt feelings when she is bullied or done wrong, she responds in verse.  Yep, poetry.  For example, when a boy in class passes a note to her comparing her to a pig (with the pig coming out the better of the two in his opinion), not only does Lara choose to keep the note from the teacher, who knows it is an unkind note, but she breaks out in verse.  
Hey, Joey Gilbert, thanks for the note.
In a class clown election, you'd get my vote.
I watched you pitch, and I think you're great.
But you'll get more power if you arm is straight.
I have a hard time imagining a 10 year old being mature enough to not only compose herself enough to thank someone for a cruel not, but to also offer constructive advice on his baseball pitching!  While I understand the purpose, teaching children to rise above bullying and be the better person, I just don't think it is realistic.

My final point contains a spoiler, so stop here if you are planning to read the book and hate spoilers.

The bullying gets so bad that Lara's parents decide to pull her out of school.  The class planned and/or participated in a horrible "joke" along the lines of Carrie without the blood.  And as bad as it was, Lara still refuses to name her tormentors.  On the day she arrives to collect her things, as she is leaving, the class children suddenly come to an epiphany that Lara is a wonderful person for covering for them and create rhyming signs to hold up as she drives away proclaiming their repentance.



And so on.  While it would be wonderful if a bully actually did repent of his/her misdeeds, this scene is so very unlikely.  Lara sees the signs, she smiles and drives off.  The End.  

And while I may not have liked the end, or how Lara was portrayed, it opens up a door for communication, provides an opportunity to talk about how to respond to bullying and whether bullies are still "good" people.  And that makes this a good book in my opinion.  And THAT is why it is now required reading in my house....

All the Pretty Things review

All the Pretty Things by Edie Wadsworth

For a long time, Edie thought she had escaped. It started in an Appalachian trailer park, where a young girl dreamed of becoming a doctor. But every day, Edie woke up to her reality: a poverty-stricken world where getting out seemed impossible. Where, at twelve years old, she taught herself to drive a truck so she could get her drunk daddy home from the bar. Where the grownups ate while the children went hungry. Where, when the family trailer burned down, she couldn’t be caught squawlin’ over losing her things—she just had to be grateful anyone had remembered to save her at all.

And at the center of it all, there was her daddy. She never knew when he would show up; she learned the hard way that she couldn’t count on him to protect her. But it didn’t matter: All she wanted was to make him proud. Against all odds, Edie “made doctor,” achieving everything that had once seemed beyond her reach. But her past caught up with her—and it would take her whole life burning down once again for Edie to be finally able to face the truth about herself, her family, and her relationship with God.

My Review:

Every little girl longs for her Daddy's love.  The girl from the broken home.  The girl with a broken father.  And Edie was no exception.  And while this story doesn't focus entirely on her desire to feel loved by her father, it is there and it will resonate within the reader.

While I didn't do most of my growing up years in Appalachia, I have been in the region since I was 12 (no, I won't tell you how long "since" has been!) and Wadsworth does a wonderful job of capturing what rural, poor Appalachia looks like,
The guardrails provided somewhat of a barrier and peace of mind from the hundred-foot drop-off to the valley below-the valley that had become a dumping ground for everything from empty milk cartons to beer cans to old worn-out couches, and even the ocassional rusted-out car. The switchbacks were so narrow that if another car approached, you either had to hug the embankment to the right and pray you didn't puncture your tires from broken glass or hope one of you would be able to back up to where the road widened enough for both vehicles.
Wadsworth does a wonderful job of capturing the angst and longing of growing up in this environment.  This story has it all: a struggle to overcome the past, a desire to achieve more, success, failures, trials, hurt, angst, and self-realization.

As with many Appalachian families, faith is interwoven throughout the story.  For me this was the most "true" aspect.  Wadsworth doesn't gloss over her trials.  She doesn't spout off easy cliches about how she always knew God was going to make everything better. Instead she shares her doubts, her uncertainties about her salvation and her walk, and her journey to coming to really know her Creator.

So I will close my review with Edie's own words after her realization that so much of life is out of our control:
Whether we work or don't, whether we homeschool or not, whether we've had nurturing marriages or not, we walk in humility-knowing that we are dependent on God to use mostly our failures to teach us something of what it means to be a parent, to be a human being.
After all, isn't that truly what life is about, recognizing that God is in control?