Hispanic Heritage Month

Hispanic Heritage Month began September 15, and lasts until the middle of October.  Though not celebrated traditionally as a “calendar” month, the date marks an important event in Latin American history – five Latin American countries achieved their independence September 15th.  And as lovers of books, there happen to be some of our favorites that were written by Hispanic writers.  One of my favorite writers, Junot Diaz, has broadened my horizons.  These writers are a unique voice, helping give voice and identity to those in the Hispanic community.  Through them, we learn more about Hispanic culture and language.  Last year the community, the world, lost one of the most influential voices in Gabrial Garcia Marquez.  In honor of this occasion, here is just a short list of our favorites:

9780679734772_p0_v1_s192x300The House on Mango Street By Sandra Cisneros – this book was first published over 25 years ago.  Then there weren’t that many popular Hispanic writers.  Now there seem to be quite a bit more, but Cisneros helped to pave the way.

Isabelle Allende has published a few books, but last year I read Maya’s Notebook.  I really enjoyed reading it, and through the eyes of a troubled teen learned so much about Chilean culture.

Junot Diaz has written a few books in a relatively short writing career.  I have read each one, and 9780439120425_p0_v2_s260x420loved each one.  I first read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao a few years ago.  It was chosen by my book club and I remember being the only one who really liked it.  Last summer I read This Is How You Lose Her and was equally amazed.

Pam Munoz Ryan is known for writing several books for young readers, focused on strong female characters.  A friend recommended Esperanza Risingand it has been on my TBR list for a while.  Maybe this month I’ll actually get around to reading it!!

Like Water for Chocolate  by Laura Esquivel is a great example of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s style.  I loved the book, and I really loved the movie!  Going deep into Mexican culture and history, there is love, magic, 9780375851230_p0_v1_s192x300and revolution.

Julia Alvarez is well known for her many YA books, which have been published in English and Spanish.  We reviewed Return to Sender just a few months ago, which we loved.  Centering on a farm family farm in Vermont, it was an important reminder of the struggle migrant workers and their families go through.

We are always in search of a good book.  In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, this can be your guide to some of the most prolific Hispanic writers.  Of course there are many more – and this only the beginning!  For more information, please visit http://hispanicheritagemonth.gov/.


Banned Books Week

unnamedThis week is Banned Books Week, which is something libraries and bookstores celebrate each year.  As a book nerd, and believer in free speech, I think it’s interesting why certain books are challenged and banned from schools and libraries.  This year’s theme, according to the American Library Association, is YA.  Understandable, most challenges come from parents or teachers trying to limit what children read.  These are some of our favorite challenged and banned books.

  1. Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak Who hasn’t read this book?  I’ve read it to my daughter over and over and she loves it.  Max has quite the imagination, and when he sent to his room for misbehaving, his imagination takes him to another place.  This is not the only book of Sendak that has been banned or challenged.
  2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky I love the book, and I love the movie.  Sure there’s drug use and sex, and it mentions homosexuality.  The ultimate takeaway from this book is acceptance, of self and of others.  For teenagers, that’s an important message.
  3. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck He also has had other works challenged.  This one has been called indecent.  I remember first reading it in high school and remember only the relationship between Lenny and George
  4. Go Ask Alice – I remember Kel lending this to me in high school.  There is drug use, sex and rebellion.  Trying to keep this out of a library or a classroom might be possible, but kids will read it anyway.
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee Though the story takes place in the 1930s, the book is still challenged today for its “racial themes”.  The young of the hero of the story, Atticus Finch, has had an image remake based on Lee’s follow-up, Go Set a Watchmen.
  6. The Giver – Lois Lowry This one, I really don’t understand.  This has been challenged in my home state of Missouri, (and elsewhere) and in this futuristic/dystopian society, a young leader emerges.  The Receiver is a free thinker, and begins to challenge the status quo.  Is he too rebellious?  Is it too much like socialism?
  7. Nickel and Dimed – Barbara Ehrenreich This one is definitely too much like socialism.  She presents a very convincing arguement, and recently has become involved in Linda Tirado’s book, Hand to Mouth.  I didn’t see it on a banned books list anywhere, but with similar ideas to Ehrenreich, it’s only a matter of time.

These were among the top 10 most challenged books this past year, according to the ALA:

  1. And Tango Makes Three – Justin Richardson My daughter and I have read this and we love it.  It has been challenged for its homosexual themes, but I just don’t see it.  It has never occurred to my daughter that there is anything but love between these penguins.
  2. A Stolen Life – Jaycee Dugard After surviving years held as a prisoner, Jayce Dugard’s memoir is dark.  I kind of agree that it might not be appropriate for some readers because of the sexual abuse she endured, and talks openly about in the book.
  3. The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison Still one of my favorite books ever, I frequently use this with my students.  I hope that through Morrison’s work they think about their own identities.  This also has some racial themes that some find disturbing. Her latest book, God Help the Child is just as powerful.

As an act of rebellion, read one of these books.  Support free speech, support authors.  Fight censorship!

Space Obsession Part 2

9781557536310_p0_v2_s192x300Back to space we go, well vicariously through the memoirs of the astronauts that is.  Have you ever heard of Skylab?  I hadn’t until watching When We Left Earth, btw sidetrack to an excellent documentary.  WWLE is a Discovery Channel production, six episodes that take you from Mercury through the shuttle and the ISS.  Narrated by Gary Sinise, with interviews with astronauts, flight controllers, former President George H. W. Bush, and Jay Barbee space news correspondent from the very beginning.  Filled with clips from so many missions it is an incredible introduction to the space program.  The DVD set has a bonus features with some of the films produced by NASA. One episode talks about Skylab, America’s first space station.  The third crew of Skylab included Bill Pogue who has written about his experience in his book By the Grace of God.  I loved this book, so well written.  Apparently his wife edited it for him as he worked on the manuscript getting on to him when 9780316253031_p0_v1_s192x300he drifted into being too technical, it was a great follow up to reading John Young’s book that was so technical.  

On to the Shuttle era.  Jerry Ross is known as Spacewalker, which he uses as the title of his book.  Jerry flew a record seven missions on the Shuttle he is tied with astronaut Franklin Diaz-Change for most flights, and they are tied for most launches with John Young if you count Young’s launch from the moon on Apollo 16.  Ross has also completed nine spacewalks.  Ross joins NASA first as a worker and then an astronaut while the shuttle was in development.  He takes us through the entire era, as he flew missions, lead recovery efforts for Columbia, and was the person in charge of the astronaut’s crew quarters on the final shuttle flight.  It was a quick but wonderful and emotional read.

Last book for today is Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield, Canadian Space Agency astronaut who has flown on the shuttle, and Soyuz spacecraft as well as living on the ISS as part of the crew and as commander of the world’s spacecraft.

All three of these books are on my wishlist, you should definitely read them!!!

Ok on to movies, at least the ones I’ve seen so far: Apollo 13 which has been at the top of my favorite movie list for years and years.  I remember seeing it the first time and being simply amazed that this had happened for real.  I was born after the Moon landings were done, I was born after Skylab was over.  However it wasn’t until I borrowed the DVD from the library for the first time that I discovered the true treasures of the movie, the extras.  There is a documentary The Lost Moon, same title as the book by astronaut Jim Lovell upon which the movie itself is based.  You get to hear great behind the movie making scenes stories from the actors, and then stories from the astronauts and flight controllers themselves.  I’ve read complaints online about the discrepancies and the dramatic license taken however just watch the movie with Ron Howard’s commentary and he explains almost every instance of either and they make sense since this is movie.  Even better watch the movie with the commentary track of Jim and Marilyn Lovell. I’ve been known to watch the movie three times in a row, once just the movie and once with each commentary track.  I have to say it’s so nice to hear Jim and Marilyn and know how much they love each other especially when you know how few early astronaut couples stayed married.

Now in case no one knows Tom Hanks is a huge space buff, hence Apollo 13, he has also played a large role in the making of two other space projects.  I’ve only seen one so far though the other is in my library queue so I’ll write about it later.  The one I’ve seen is HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon.  Now going in I had high expectation as I love Band of Brothers, also an HBO mini-series produced by Tom Hanks. I was NOT disappointed, on the contrary this show far surpassed my expectations.  It is simply amazing!  Not only is the story told so well, with my personal exception being the episode about Apollo 13, however it’s hard to live up to the movie, this series is filled with actors and actresses it’s almost a who’s who of Hollywood at the time, maybe more TV who’s who but still… I cried during the Apollo 1 episode, loved the Original Wives Club episode so much I just couldn’t go back to ABC’s Astronaut’s Wives Club the soap opera.  I finished all twelve episodes and immediately started watching again.  I had to return it to the library after a week as others had it on hold but I put it right back on hold myself.  I highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend this series.

Now what have I missed?  I’ll have another post to share sometime down the road when I’ve read more and seen more.  If you have recommendations share them please!!! 🙂

Our Obsession with Space

9780061098772_p0_v1_s192x300So a few months ago Amy messaged me and asked if I knew that there was a TV show that was to air soon based on the book Astronaut’s Wives Club that I had reviewed last year.  Somehow I hadn’t heard anything about it but I soon found it on ABC and set it to record on my DVR.  I reviewed the first episode and that sparked me to start writing Book to Screen posts.  It also set me on a space kick again, reading and watching everything I could.

Before I start talking books and movies I want to share my fascination with space with you, or at least my reasons why.  I honestly can’t remember when I first knew about the space program.  I know my parents had told me about seeing men walk on the moon and that was simply incredible to me.  I remember precisely when I learned about the Challenger disaster.  I was in line for lunch in the cafeteria, the last student in line with my teacher behind me I don’t think the lunch ladies were really paying attention when they asked my teacher if he’d heard the news that the Challenger had exploded.  We spent the afternoon with most of the 3-8 grade students stuffed into one classroom (the fire marshall would have had a fit if they’d seen us I’m sure) watching the news, watching that disaster over and over again.  To this day I can’t watch it without flinching.  I know I tried on the 25th anniversary when I shared the story with my students, class after class.  Out of six classes I didn’t even bother trying to watch five times, the one time I did I flinched involuntarily and looked away.  

9780312427566_p0_v1_s192x300Fortunately I have good memories too.  My grandparents lived in Florida across the state from the Cape just outside of Tampa but as the state is so flat one summer while we were visiting I was able to stand in their front yard and see a shuttle launch.  I couldn’t see it in great detail obviously but it was still amazing!  I lost interest for many years but recently my interest has sparked again learning all I can about NASA past and present, and future.  I was one of the who knows how many people that entered my name on the NASA website to a list that was put somehow electronically on the Orion space capsule the first time it launched this past winter.  Now I read and watch and it’s time to share those books and movies with you.  If you are at all interested in space, astronauts, and NASA give some of these a try.

Obviously I’ve already reviewed both ASWC by Lily Koppel and Failure is Not an Option by Gene Kranz so you know what I think of them and I highly recommend reading both of those to get an almost behind the scenes look at NASA in the early years.

I finally read the book that has been to many THE book about early NASA The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, that will also be it’s own post, specifically a Book to Screen post as it became a movie that I watched this summer as well.

The only book I’ve read so far written by a Mercury 7 astronaut is Leap of Faith by Gordon Cooper.  I read it last summer and really enjoyed it, which meant I was then very disappointed to find that it is no longer in my library’s collection and so I can’t reread it, it’s on my Christmas/ b-day list for the hubby though 😉

There have been many many books written about and by Apollo astronauts, including some amazing coffee table books with pictures taken by the astronauts themselves in space and on the moon.  Apollo Through the Eyes of the Astronauts is one, another is Apollo 11 Remembered, Voices from the Moon is excellent, and the one that goes to the top of my wish list is one I just finished Mission Control: This is Apollo with paintings by Al Bean, Apollo 12 astronaut.

Some astronaut memoirs are fast easy reads others not as much.  I thoroughly enjoyed Ed Mitchell’s Earthrise, a fairly short but detailed story about his life and trip on Apollo 14 with America’s first astronaut Al Shephard and Stuart Roosa.  Al Worden, Apollo 15, wrote Falling to Earth.  A bit longer it is still a good read though as there was a controversy about that mission, which I had honestly never heard of, Al is understandably defensive.  You can feel his disappointment when he is asked to leave NASA but you can also tell how happy he is now that he has found his way back to friendships with NASA and his fellow astronauts.  

Forever Young by John Young, Gemini, Apollo, and Shuttle astronaut who stayed with Nasa through the Columbia disaster is a great perspective of NASA through the years but it can be tough to read as he can get quite technical at times.

Ok so I have more books to talk about and movies to discuss but this post is long enough so I’ll stop here for now.  If you have suggestions of space books please share them with me thanks!

Cooking with Kids: Charlie’s Meatballs

I love cooking with my daughter.  She likes to “help” in the kitchen, and whenever possible, I let her pour ingredients in, or stir something on the stove.  With help, of course!!  We both love reading and cooking.  She loves the Pioneer Woman’s children’s series about Charlie the ranch dog.  All of the books in the series includes a recipe that kids can help with.  Her newest Charlie books is Charlie Plays Ball.  Charlie is her big, lazy basset hound, and in this book he talks about the kids’ favorite sports.  Football, basketball, and soccer.  Charlie admits that his favorite balls are meatballs!  Ree Drummond herself has cooked for kids, and definitely knows a thing or two about pleasing picky ones.  My 4 year old is an incredibly picky one, and finding things that she’ll actually eat is always challenging.

This recipe seemed like something she might actually eat, and seemed like something we’d all enjoy.  We’ve cooked with Charlie before, and she loved it!  One thing that’s on the short list of things my daughter will actually eat is meatballs.  Maybe it’s something about the soft texture (although when I put the parsley in, she was afraid because there were “leaves”).  I’ve also noticed that she loves marinara sauce, and will practically dip anything in it.  Win-win!

unnamed-1 unnamedSo, first Miss Ree’s warning: Be safe! Always cook with an adult.

Don’t touch sharp knives or hot stoves and ovens! And always wash

your hands before and after cooking.

Meatball Ingredients:

1 ½ lbs ground beef

2 cloves garlic, minced

¾ cup bread crumbs

unnamed-2unnamed-3½ cup freshly grated Parmesan

2 eggs

¼ tsp salt

Freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, minced

Splash of milk

¼ cup olive oil

Sauce Ingredients

1 onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 28 oz can whole tomatoes

1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes

¼ tsp salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tbsp sugar

¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, minced

8 whole fresh basil leaves, cut into slivers (optional)

2 lbs spaghetti, cooked according to the package directions

Extra Parmesan, for sprinkling


  1. To make the meatballs, combine meat, garlic, bread crumbs, Parmesan, eggs, salt, pepper, parsley, and a splash of milk in a mixing bowl. Mix together well. Roll into 25 1 ½ inch balls and place on a cookie sheet. Place cookie sheet in the freezer for 5 to 10 minutes to firm them up.
  2. To brown the meatballs, heat olive oil in a heavy pot or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add meatballs 8 at a time, turning to brown. Remove and drain on a paper towel after each batch. Set meatballs aside.
  3. Now you will start the sauce in the same pot. Add the onion and garlic and cook for a few minutes or until translucent. Pour in whole tomatoes and crushed tomatoes. Add salt, pepper, sugar, and parsley. Stir to combine and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes.
  4. Add meatballs to pot and stir in gently. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes, stirring very gently a couple of times during the simmer.
  5. Just before serving, stir in basil if using.
  6. Serve over cooked spaghetti. Sprinkle with extra Parmesean.

Enjoy!!  We sure did.  I ate about 10 meatballs in one sitting, and we used the leftovers for meatball subs.

Book to screen: YA

unnamedSo many young adult novels have been turned into movies that there is always enough for another post.  I’ve taught so many: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Outsiders, Giver and here are a few more.

I don’t remember the first time I saw Alice in Wonderland, the Disney version that is, but I do recall being confused.  Actually I think that’s been my general impression every time I’ve watched the movie or read the book, and that’s ok it’s still fun.  The classes I read the books with year after year were also quite confused, the movie actually always seemed to help clear that up.  I really enjoyed that adaptation as I enjoyed the newer Johnny Depp/Mia Wasikowska movie which was more of a sequel but still good.  Both movies are well worth seeing.

When I first started teaching the district I was in at the time required all seventh graders to read Bridge to Terabithia.  My next district I had my students read the book it was interesting as one year classes would love it and the next they hated it.  Personally I love the story of Jess and Leslie and naturally I cry at the end.  There have been two movies made, the 1985 version to me is the much more true adaptation and my preferred version to watch.  I just don’t care for the changes made to the 2007 version, they age the kids needlessly and seem to change the time frame which then really loses something in the story.  Read the book, watch the 1985 version, 2007 is up to you but I’d pass on it.

Tuck Everlasting is a really interesting story of young Winnie and the Tuck family.  This was another book that my student either loved or hated.  Honestly I love teaching those books because the reactions always lead to better discussions.  I was excited to hear about the movie being made in 2002 but was incredibly disappointed when it came out.  Again needlessly aging characters makes me crazy!  Winnie is supposed to be much younger than she is in the movie.  Honestly I’ve seen it once years ago and can’t remember the other details that bothered me but I don’t plan on seeing it again.  Read the book, the movie that’s all up to you.

One last series, not one I’ve taught but one that will not stay on any classroom or library shelves: Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  Kids LOVE this series, I think it’s probably the best seller at fall book fairs everywhere when the new book comes out.  I know my son can’t wait for each new book.  I haven’t read any of them but he reads them over and over and over, and will watch the movies any time they are on.  He loves them though he can tell you every detail that’s different between books and movies.  If you have a kiddo that is reluctant to read for pleasure as mine was, have them try out the Wimpy Kid series.

So are there any other young adult, kid books turned movies that we have yet to review?  Fill us in.

Hanns and Rudolf

9781476711850_p0_v4_s192x300As a history major, and as a history teacher, I’ve read quite a few books about World War II.  Some out of necessity, and some out of curiosity.  Some of them were really great, and some of them weren’t.  I recently finished reading Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz. Written by Thomas Harding, a journalist and documentarian, this tracks the investigation of Rudolf Hoss, the former commandant of Auschwitz. What drew him into this cat and mouse story was Hanns Alexander, who happened to be his great-uncle. This story examines these two individuals, but asks a larger question: What happened to Nazi war criminals and their families in the years after the war. Eventually, many of them were caught – so many escaped though.

Hanns, in attempting to bring Rudolf to trial, chased him all over Europe. Hanns had been a German Jew, who fled Berlin in the early 30s, he eventually made his way to England, where he earned a commission in the British Army. He became pivotal as an investigator in the Nuremburg trials.

Hoss was not only the commanding officer at Auschwitz, he was also the designer of the death camp that had been converted from an old army base. It became a “killing machine capable of murdering 2,000 people an hour. By the end of the war, 1.1 million Jews had been killed in the camp”.  Thomas Harding traces the Hoss family’s history back over a hundred years, back to Hanns’s birth. Was it out of curisioty? How does a killer on this scale evolve?  Harding seems to be trying to find a pathology.  How did he, and so many men of his generation in Germany become a part of this efficient killing machine?  Hoss’s military career was a remarkable one, and is closely detailer here, along with his relationship with top Nazi leaders.

“I had to see everything that was being done. Day or night, I had to watch bodies being collected up and burned, I had to see teeth being broken out, hair cut off, I had to witness all these horrors for hour after hour. I had to stand there myself in the dreadful, sinister stench that arose when mass graves were dug and the bodies burned. I also, at the request of the doctors, had to look through the peephole into the gas chamber and watch the inmates dying.”

Included in the book are pictures of the two men, (their adventures) before and during the war. The pictures include some that had belonged to Hanns’s family, and this is one of the parts of the book that I found most interesting. While thousands of people were dying at the hands of the Nazis, the families the officers in charge of the camps lived very normal lives.

In April of 1945 the family tried to escape Europe. Even after he was caught, the family left – they were outcasts in their community, and the rest of Germany. One his daughters eventually made her way to states, and spent almost 40 years living in Northern Virginia, never revealing her true identity.

Having commanded the death camp responsible for killing a million Jews, Hoss became a top target in the post-war era.  Harding is committed to the story of these two men and their intersecting lives.  The chase to bring Hoss to justice was a difficult task, and the story of how it happened is an interesting one.