Friday, February 19, 2010

Read This Book:
Marcelo in the Real World

I read a few highly touted books over the December break, and was pretty much underwhelmed by each. What a joy, then, to pick up Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, and find it every bit as good as it was said to be. It has much in common with Mark Haddon's wonderful novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time , but this is a different story, and Marcelo is a different sort of hero.

In Curious Dog, though the words 'autism' and 'Asperger's' are never used, Christopher's unique way of seeing the world give readers the opportunity to walk in the shoes of an autistic savant, gifted in math and profoundly uncomfortable with the noise, chaos and interactions of human society. From Christopher I learned about hyperfocus. Where I would walk into a pasture and see green grass and some brown and white cows, Chris could tell us exactly how much grass, how many cows, how many spots each cow has and how the spots are distributed on each cow's body. Relentlessly logical, devoid of humor (it just doesn't make sense), a guy like Chris can be incredibly difficult when viewed from the outside, but when viewed from the inside, from his point of view, everything changes, and the reader is the better for the experience.

In contrast, Marcelo is very aware of his condition, which is similar to, but not exactly Asperger's Syndrome. His family is well-educated and affluent, and Marcelo has been encouraged, protected and supported -- he goes to a special school, had years of social training, he lives in a tree house in their backyard, and though the Sandovals are Catholic, Marcelo has regular meetings with a female rabbi to discuss issues of God, faith and religion, his "pervasive special interest." He is also tall, handsome, and seventeen.

What Marcelo really isn't good at is people, their feelings, social cues, ambiguity and unpredictable natures. And so his father, founding partner of a very successful Boston law firm, is requiring that Marcelo spend the summer outside his comfort zone, in the "real world" of his law offices. Following the rules of the real world means
engaging in small talk with other people. It means refraining from talking about my special interest. It means looking people in the eye and shaking hands. It means doing things "on the hoof," as we say at Paterson, which means doing things that have not been scheduled in advance.
Marcelo is very bright, and sees the world with great clarity, but he doesn't feel the world in a way he can handle. An everyday challenge is to remember to refer to himself in the first person. He often mentions how well he has been trained to appeal "normal," when he knows he isn't. Marcelo's emotional growth is guided by Jasmine, the young boss of the mailroom, who somehow understands Marcelo, challenges him to try unfamilar and scary tasks, and who also becomes an inspiration and a role model for him.

Francisco X. Stork writes Marcelo's thoughts and observations in brilliant deadpan (a comic's dream straightman). As he grows, Marcelo not only recognizes his growth; others' reactions to him prove it. The novel is studded with wonderful passages that show rather than tell what it's like to be Marcelo.

When his father takes him to the gym for a lunchtime workout:
I know by now that I have a tendency to get annoyed about being asked to do something unexpected. I have worked very hard over the years to reduce the level and duration of the annoyance. I have been working on that as long as I can remember.
When Jasmine mock-swoons over the mention of Wendell, arrogant son of the firm's other partner, Marcelo recognizes the intent.
"That is called sarcasm," I say. There is no need to be proud of myself for recognizing it, but I am.
The catalyst that pushes Marcelo onto a path that's illogical, unscheduled, and full of uncertainty, is his discovery of a photograph of a young girl who has been horribly disfigured in a car accident. His father's firm is representing the defendant, a wealthy manufacturing firm responsible for the shattered windshield that hurt the girl, and the law firm's biggest client. In some way, this picture pulls together for Marcelo his lifelong fascination with religion and the reality of suffering in the world, and he is moved to action.
Why does the picture of the girl unsettle me so much? . . I have been around kids that suffer ... It's like I have walked among them without noticing the pain that must exist beneath their skin. Now I notice the girl in the picture and I feel as if I were responsible for her pain.
As a child, Marcelo had a unusual ability to hear what he calls his IM, "internal music," the feelings aroused by beautiful sounds without actually hearing them. As Marcelo struggles with his choices, his growing ability for empathy and passion for justice, his IM fades. It is replaced by feelings aroused by life in the real world, and as Jasmine tells him, he'll know the right choices the way she knows how to compose at the piano. "The right note sounds right and the wrong note sounds wrong."

There's so much to like about this novel, not least that the Sandovals are a Mexican-American family starring in a book that is not about being the struggles of being Hispanic. Remember how exciting it was that the Spy Kids movies had all Hispanic stars?

Over the years we have had several teens with Asperger's at Paideia. From Marcelo, I have learned about the "pervasive special interest" that is a hallmark of Aspergers, be it religious philosophy, political issues, or baseball. I understand how our students have learned and benefited from the years of training that they've had. We talk a lot here about reading as a window into different worlds. Read this book, and see a different world.

Monday, February 15, 2010

CQ Researcher Reports:
an information goldmine

This showed up in my e-mailbox this morning:

Sleep Deprivation:
Are chronically tired people at greater health risk?
via CQ Researcher Online

New research links sleep deprivation to a large number of automobile and other accidents. Moreover, chronically sleep-deprived people are at higher risk for poor memories, mental illnesses, obesity, cardiovascular disease and early death. Yet today's 24/7 culture fights against the human body's biological need for about seven hours of sleep a night. Some people are especially sleep deprived, notably teenagers and late-shift workers such as police officers, nurses and medical residents. Meanwhile, some experts worry that overuse of sleeping medications is becoming a serious problem. Newer medications like Ambien and Lunesta are in some ways “safer” than older drugs, but they also affect brain function and sleep patterns in ways that are still not fully understood. With primary-care doctors now able to prescribe these medications because of their greater apparent safety, more people may get into trouble with sleeping pills.

This is the weekly report announcement from CQ Researcher, one of our awesome online subscription databases. It comes from a company that got its start preparing background reports on issues coming up in the US Congress; CQ stands for "Congressional Quarterly." Each weekly report is a 24-32 page goldmine of information on some hot national issue, and includes an overview introduction, background information, a timeline, a Pro/Con debate on some question related to the topic ("Should medical residents' work hours be further limited to allow more time for sleep?"), and lots of citations to sources for further research. Some of these citations can even be gotten by going right over to ProQuest or SIRS Researcher, library databases of magazine and newspaper articles.

Recent CQ Researcher (and its monthly companion CQ Global Researcher) reports include:
Press Freedom: Should partisan bloggers get free-press protections?
Professional Football: Is the NFL doing enough to protect players?
Housing the Homeless: Is the solution more shelters or affordable housing?
Climate Change: Will the Copenhagen Accord slow global warming?
Truth Commissions: Can countries heal after atrocities?

If there is a relatively recent Researcher report on your topic, you have hit the mother lode!! Though the full-text of every report is available as a web page, I teach students that the easiest way to access the report is by downloading the PDF file to the computer; page 2 of the pdf always contains an annotated table of contents that helps a student get right to the good stuff.

From on campus, students can go directly to CQ Researcher Online, no passwords needed. For parents, or from home, a Paideia user ID and password are necessary -- see the librarians or go to the Library database page for the Database Help login link (use the @Paidia login info).

Want to keep on top of all the latest reports? You can subscribe to the E-mail Alert newsletter and get a weekly e-mail like the one I got this morning, or subscribe to the RSS feed (I use GoogleReader), using the orange RSS button at the top of the CQ Researcher home page.

I cannot enthuse enough about this wonderful resource! Solid, sophisticated coverage written for regular people, the CQ family of reports is a great way to research a topic or just learn more about the issues facing out nation and the world.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Scenes from the Library

Most days, when high school students aren't supposed to be somewhere else (class, assembly, or sports), a huge number of them come to the library. A typical day will have us packed before school, pretty quiet during 1st & 2nd periods, full at break (and full to overflowing on Wednesday's 45 minute activity period), then somewhat quieter during 3rd period. Fourth period is a big study hall, so we will have 10-15 students studying or using the computers. Lunch is usually pretty hopping, and 5th & 6th vary. And that's before scheduled classes come in for research projects & lessons.

We also have Peter & Sydney's 4th & 5th grade artist project showing right now. The highlight of each students project is a "forgery" done in the style of the artist. I'd like to keep quite a few of them to hang on my walls!

Click the "play" button to see a slideshow of what it can look like in here on any given day.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Rainbow List 2010 - Teen Fiction

Yikes! As I've written before, there are far too many noteworthy books for far too little shelf space in our school library. Even though we probably have one of the biggest collections of teen GLBT fiction and non-fiction of any local school library, there's no way to have everything. But as all true librarians know, knowing a book exists is the first step toward getting your hands on it.

Below is the new 2010 Rainbow Project list of Fiction for junior high and high school readers. We have a few, and I've ordered a few more. Check the local public library for anything that's not linked.

The Rainbow Project is a joint effort of the GLBT Round Table and the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library association. In an effort to help young readers locate books that reflect gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender/questioning experiences, it creates an annual book list of recommended GLBTQ fiction and nonfiction titles for young readers from birth through age 18.


Burd, Nick. The Vast Fields of Ordinary. 2009. 309p. Dial/Penguin, $16.99. (9780803733404) Gr. 9+. During his last summer before college, Dade juggles his divorcing parents and dysfunctional closeted boyfriend until he meets Alex and gains the courage to declare his sexuality.

Carter, Timothy. Evil? 2009. 256p. Flux/Llewellyn, $9.95. (9780738715391). Gr. 9+. Being gay and summoning demons don’t provide Stuart with any problem in his small, conservative Canadian town, but everyone gets caught up in an anti-masturbation crusade when Stuart commits the sin of Onan.

Collins, Pat Lowery. Hidden Voices: The Orphan Musicians of Venice. Gr. 7+. In a 1700s Venetian orphanage famous for its musical training, teenage Anetta suffers from her unrequited love for the ethereal Luisa.

Crutcher, Chris. Angry Management. Gr. 7+. Anger and rage, both internal and external, provide the common thread for three stories dealing with high school injustice–being black, gay, overweight, or simply a high school student.

Ehrenberg, Pamela. Tillmon County Fire. Gr. 7+. Eight teens give their perspectives about an anti-gay hate crime that ignites fear, homophobia, grief, and loss.

Frazer, Megan. Secrets of Truth & Beauty. Gr. 9+. At age seven, Dara was a darling pageant winner; at 17, she has gained too much weight and anger, leading her to discover her runaway sister on a farm commune for lesbians and others rejected by their families, including a gay high school senior.

Garsee, Jeannine. Say the Word. Gr. 9+. The “perfect” Shawna Gallagher finds her life turned upside down when she turns 17, her estranged lesbian mother dies, and she discovers a family in the mother’s partner and two sons, a family that her controlling father tries to destroy.

Going, K.L. King of the Screwups. Gr. 7+. When Liam Geller screws up once too often, his father throws him out of the house, and Liam finds his true self when he goes to live with his father’s brother, “Aunt” Pete, a gay glam-rocker disc jockey living in a trailer in upstate New York.

González, Rigoberto. The Mariposa Club. Gr. 8+. During their senior year, the Fierce Foursome—Maui, Trini, Isaac, and Lib—decide to leave their legacy by creating their high school’s first LGBT organization, an action that brings out both support and opposition from their families and their community.

Hopkins, Ellen, Tricks. Gr. 9+. Five teens find themselves selling their bodies in Las Vegas due to circumstances and decisions, both within and well beyond their control.

* How Beautiful the Ordinary: Twelve Stories of Identity (ordered). Ed. Michael Cart. Gr. 9+. The tales in this collection present not only the variety of identities in the LGBTQ community—transgendered, lesbian, bisexual, questioning, and gay—but also the variety of experiences of being human—love, regret, betrayal, discovery.

Hurwin, Davida Wills. Freaks and Revelations. Gr. 10+. Actual events inspired this narrative of two teens—Jason, a gay thirteen-year-old surviving on the streets after being rejected by his family, and Doug, a seventeen-year-old skinhead punk rocker—as their lives intersect in a violent hate crime that forever changes them.

Katcher, Brian. Almost Perfect. Gr. 9+. Beautiful newcomer Sage is perfect for Logan until he discovers that she is transgendered.

Ketchum, Liza. Newsgirl. Gr. 5-8. When ambitious and strong-willed Amelia moves to San Francisco in 1851 with her two mothers, she must masquerade as a boy to realize her dream of first hawking newspapers and then working as a reporter.

Levithan, David. Love Is the Higher Law. Gr. 8+. Three teenage New Yorkers–Claire, Peter, and Jasper–searching for the meaning of the 9/11 bombing find it in new friendships and the emerging romantic relationship between the two boys.

* Lo, Malinda. Ash. Gr. 8+. Torn between her emerging love for the King’s mysterious huntress and the ethereal draw of the world of the fairies, Ash discovers the strength of her own identity.

Marino, Peter. Magic and Misery. Gr. 8+. With frank discussions of relationships and sex, heterosexual and homosexual, Toni Jo, who befriends new student Pan (short for Pansy) in the hopes that he will be her boyfriend, gives a humorous portrayal of high school life.

Park, Judith. YSquare Plus. Gr. 9+. Yagate has his heart set on Ra-Myun, the man of his dreams, but when he discovers that Chana does too, he turns to his friend Yoshitaka to help him win Ra-Myun’s affections.

Peck, Dale. Sprout, or My Salad Days, When I Was Green in Judgment. Gr. 7-10. It’s not easy having green hair in conservative Kansas, but teenage Sprout manages while also prepping for the Kansas State Essay Contest and falling in love with the intriguing new boy in school.

Peters, Julie Anne. Rage: A Love Story. Gr. 10+. When the wildly divergent lives of Johanna and Reeves collide, all the Romantic, Alluring, Gorgeous, and Exciting expectations turn to painful RAGE.

Polito, Frank Anthony. Drama Queers! Gr. 9+. Julliard, thespians, homecoming, and a certain gorgeous football player all come together as “Band Fag” Bradley Dayton is out to make his senior year his most exciting ever—even if his best friend Jack won’t admit that he, too, is gay.

Rapp, Adam. Punkzilla. Gr. 8+. Fourteen-year-old Jamie (aka Punkzilla)–AWOL from military school–embarks on a cross-country odyssey to find his older brother, a dying gay playwright, and share with him his journal of his sometimes frightening, sometimes heartwarming adventures along the way.

Roth, Matthue. Losers. Gr. 8-10. Russian immigrant and freshman Jupiter navigates the high school social world and works to improve his popularity while trying to connect with the cute girl at the record store and finding an unexpected friend in the school’s closeted bully.

Ruff, Shawn Stewart. Finlater. Gr. 10+. This deeply affecting and openly sexual story of two boys in love—Cliffy Douglas and Noah Baumgarten—plays out among the disparities of home life and background during the 1970s homophobia and racial tension.

Ryan, P. E. In Mike We Trust. Gr. 7-10. Garth finds the confidence to come out to his mother when wheeling-and-dealing Uncle Mike, his late father’s identical twin, moves in and puts him to work as a budding con man.

Sanchez, Alex. Bait (ordered). Gr. 7+. Sexually abused San Diego teenager Diego, in trouble for his violent temper, finds understanding and reasons for self-acceptance in the wise and caring counsel of his gay parole officer Mr. Vidas.

Satyal, Rakesh. Blue Boy. Gr. 9+. Can Kiran Sharma, a sexually confused twelve-year-old Indian American boy who secretly puts on his mother’s make-up, plays with dolls, and practices ballet, really be the reincarnation of the gender-bending Hindu god Krishna?

Stevenson, Robin. Inferno. Gr. 9+. When Dante meets Parker, she thinks that she has found a soul mate but is instead drawn into a dangerous and destructive relationship.

* Urrea, Luis Alberto. Into the Beautiful North.(ordered) Gr. 9+. When all the young men and fathers leave the bucolic Sinaloa village of Tres Camarones to find jobs in the United States, three young women and their gay friend Tacho sneak across the border to recruit seven police officers and soldiers (the Magnificent Seven!) who will return home and rescue them from the drug-dealing banditos who threaten their good life.

Whatling, Michael. A Vigil for Joe Rose: Stories of Being Out in High School. Gr. 9+. The fictional notebooks belonging to Joe Rose, a young gay man killed in 1989 by a gang of hateful young men, is the thread that stitches together the stories of seven out gay high school students in Montreal.