Liar & SpyLiar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hey, Newbery Committee!! Can you hear me now? THIS IS FREAKIN’ AMAZING!!!

I loved When You Reach Me, the author’s last Newbery Award winner, so I had high expectations. Stead blasted right through the roof. I love genre-defying books–this is a bit of a thriller, and a bit of a mystery. Stead obviously knows her Man from U.N.C.L.E., and she’s put in as many stunning twists as Sixth Sense. There are elements of a family story, a friendship story, a school story, too. It’s a rich read.

This is the story of Georges (the is silent), who is glumly getting used to a new apartment, his parents’ schedules, the recent defection of a friend to the “cool table,” and the cheerfully bizarre family who lives in the same building. Middle School is a trial, complete with bullies, clueless teachers, and pointless tasks. But the boy who lives upstairs has all kinds of secrets–and he has plans for Georges.

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The Grave Robber's ApprenticeThe Grave Robber’s Apprentice by Allan Stratton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

High adventure awaits in this Shakespearean tale of missing heirs, evil magicians, and a Bluebeard-style wicked ruler. The author’s gleeful embracement of the conspicuously awful (torture chambers, descriptions of rotting corpses, and being buried alive…) reminded me of the more gruesome Grimm tales, with a bit of Lemony Snicket thrown in. I, personally, loved the various objects the over-the-top Necromancer used for eyeballs in his loathsome empty sockets. I was hoping for a bit more character development. The heroine and hero seemed little changed by their adventures. I also thought the heroine’s love of puppetry was going to be put to more significant use.

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Lies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got WrongLies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen

This was an absolutely fascinating read for the summer of 2012. Loewen examines a dozen or so American history textbooks for accuracy, and finds a lot of evasions, half-truths, misconceptions, lies, damned lies, and statistics. The story of the American nation, as we teach it to our children, is slanted to a nationalistic, Eurocentric, self-righteous angle. To protect our kids from unpleasant stories, we whitewash historical events. To avoid annoying vocal political groups, we soften stories to remove elements of racism, sexism, and greed. To inspire our children, we present our national heroes as perfect, unblemished souls–worthy, but impossible to emulate. Loewen makes the argument that by hiding controversy and teaching history three times removed from primary sources, we rob our children of the truth, and of the opportunity to think critically about forces in our nation today.

Do pick up this book. While you read, keep your Twitter stream open on the left, and follow all the conversations about the Common Core Standards and teacher evaluations. Check the newspaper and news websites for stories on teacher proficiency, and remember that all these poor saps who want to pay their mortgages are going to have to teach to whatever test will determine their teaching “quality.” The content of the test is going to drive what’s in the textbooks. And what’s in the textbooks will drive what Ms. Jones or Mr. Smith is teaching. Most likely, the test, the textbook, teacher licensure, and the professional development the teacher receives are coming from big companies like Pearson. Even if teachers and school boards want students to have a more realistic understanding of American history, the odds are against them.

In those news items, watch for the insidious presence of corporate backers, union bashers, and conservative politicians who want want to tell history “the right way.” And remember that Texas–the state with the GOP platform that proclaims critical thinking is dangerous because it might lead children to question entrenched beliefs–is pretty much the most important force in textbook approval in the nation.

Then ask yourself if anything is going to change.

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