My New Favorite Book: The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

Our search for the next school wide read continues without success. There have been books some teachers on the “committee” loved, some that were good for grades 6 and 7 but not 8, some good for 8 and seven but not for six.  And the science and math department, along with the forces at large, are still pushing for a non-fiction title, which only makes the search harder.

So we’re still looking.

Meanwhile, the search led me to Peter Brown’s wonderful novel for younger readers The Wild Robot which is perfect for grades four through six, but really too young for grades seven and eight.

The story opens, like so many good stories do, with a storm.  A ship is lost at sea, its crew lost, its cargo swept overboard.   The cargo–robots.

Only one robot survives the wreck to end up on dry land, an island, inhabited only by the animals one finds in the Pacific Northwest.  When a group of curious sea otters accidentally turns the robot on, the machine finds itself alone among creatures who view it as a monster.

Roz, the robot, soon discovers that her programming which was designed to serve humans, must be modified if she is to survive and to serve the animals of the island.

There are all kinds of themes at play here that would make this a terrific school wide read.  The clash between machine and nature, the way the robot studies the eco-system in order to adapt to it, the presentation of the interdependence among the animals on the island, how Roz takes on an orphaned gosling and raises it to adulthood, overcoming fear and prejudice, the extremes a parent will go to to protect a child, what it’s like to raise a child very different from yourself.  Writing this I see how well this book would pair with Shakespeare’s Tempest though Roz is both Prospero and Caliban.

But the readership for The Wild Robot is really a younger audience, upper elementary.  The eighth graders, and many of the seventh graders, would probably not go along with the talking animals or the very child like artwork throughout the book. They are both too old and too young for that sort of thing.

I loved it. The opening sections of the book featuring the robot Roz adapting to the wild animals she encounters were cleverly written and thought provoking in the way a good fable is thought provoking.  While the animals interact with Roz they remain animals–predators are predators and prey is prey.  Towards the end things get a little Disneyesque as the animals of the island join forces to protect Roz from the robot rescue team that has arrive and there is a default chase/battle scene in the end, but I was okay with that.

The Wild Robot reminded me of a favorite movie from years ago, The Brave Little Toaster maybe you saw it.  It’s a wonderful movie. Perfect for children 13 and under and young adults past their late teens.  It was very popular with the college age crowd in San Francisco at the time.  It’s also the unacknowledged basis for Toy Story but you didn’t hear that from me.

If you’re young enough, or old enough, to enjoy The Brave Little Toaster, you might enjoy The Wild Robot.

Here’s The Brave Little Toaster. You can see the entire movie on YouTube for free.

My New Favorite Book: The Midnight Choir by Gene Kerrigan

I did not expect The Midnight Choir to end up being my new favorite book.  It’s a very well written crime novel.  Entertaining. Strong characters.  Interesting plot. Borderline pager turner.

But it wasn’t until towards the end when everything came together in a single shocking revelation that both linked and undermined all of the books multiple plot lines that The Midnight Choir became my new favorite book.

Set in modern Dublin, Ireland, the novel has a wide-spread ensemble cast of characters who circle around Detective Inspector Harry Synott.  It’s late in Synott’s career.  He has floated from station to station, staying just long enough for the local officers to realize he is the Harry Synott who reported his colleagues illegal activities costing them their careers and their pensions.  His superiors have noted his excellent police work, his unyielding integrity. They are considering him for a new position representing the Irish police force with the EU.

First, he must solve the murder of a young jewelry store security guard and put a rapist behind bars.

Dixie Peyton, Synott’s sometime informer, is trying to get her son back from child services who, rightly, refuse to give her the toddler until she can prove she has stopped using.  Her boyfriend Brendan is tied to the local underworld who suspect he is the one informing on him.  The way Synott uses her to get information undermines readers who would like him to be a pure hero.

Synott’s new partner, a woman, wants to put the suspected rapist behind bars and may be going outside of what the rulebook allows to do it.  Lars MacKendrick, gangland leader, is still recovering from his brother’s vicious murder while he looks to discover who is responsible for it.  And the jewelry store owner is trying to find a way to deal with the not quite legal contents of his floor safe, lost in the robbery.

Meanwhile, Detective Joe Mills talks a jumper down from a roof only to find the man has dried blood on his shoes.  Blood that turns out not to be his.  Blood that will link him to a 15-year-old murder case closed when the prime suspect killed himself.

This is all fairly standard fare for modern police procedurals.  I doubt many readers of the stuff will find anything truly new in The Midnight Choir.   The novels focus on the morality of the police is also nothing new.  Harry Synott is sure that the suspected rapist is guilty, the narration leads the reader to agree with Harry from the start.  How problematic is it if the police operate outside of regulations to get the conviction they are sure is right?

Harry Synott has spent his career operating within the rules, serving justice and the law.  But has he always put the right man behind bars?  How would he react if he were faced with a career ending mistake?

When the moment came, when all the various plot were linked together, my jaw hit the floor.

When you can make my jaw hit the floor after a lifetime of reading crime novels, you are my new favorite book.


Looking for the Next School Wide Read

Finding a book suitable for grades six, seven and eight is not easy. The difference between a seventh grader and an eighth grader is dramatic, but the difference between a sixth and an eighth grader is stunning.

This year we did our first school wide read, Chew on This by Charles Wilson and Eric Schlosser, based on Mr. Schlosser’s best-selling book Fast Food Nation.  Each subject area read several chapters of the book following a loose schedule so all the students in the school were talking about this history of McDonald’s, factory farming, health and soda more or less at the same time.  Most of the teachers enjoyed it, too.  There were few disgruntled math teachers, but, well…..

The English department would like to do it again, so we’re looking for a book.  So far a few have gotten close, but no cigar has been awarded.

Nine, Ten by Nora Raleigh Baskin has come closest to date.  Featuring the story of four different young people in the days leading up to the September 11 attacks, Nine, Ten has an immediate appeal for grades six through eight.  Our students were all born after the attacks.  They have no memory of them at all.  But they are all interested in knowing more about them. For this reason alone, I may end up advocating in favor of Nine, Ten. It’s also a very good little book.  We could probably read the entire thing in a couple of weeks of class time, mix it up with some non-fiction accounts etc.

There’s a terrific children’s book called Saved by the Boats by Julie Gassman about the boat rescue of 500,000 plus stranded New Jersey commuters who were stuck in Manhattan that day with no way to get home since all forms of public transit were closed.  My colleague who teaches eighth grade has already tested it out with one of her classes. They loved it.

I just finished a non-fiction account of the 1900 outbreak of Bubonic Plague that struck San Francisco called Bubonic Panic by Gail Jarrow that I can highly recommend, but it’s the sort of book that often doesn’t get a paperback release due to its size and the number of pictures it contains.

And I’m not sure the whole school should go through another round of scientific horror story, which was a pretty common element of Chew on This. I do think the library should get a couple of copies, though. The cover alone will sell the book to middle schoolers.

My eighth grade colleague has read Saving Red by Sonya Sones, which came highly recommended. A story told through prose poems, Saving Red is about a girl with a schizophrenic older brother who is trying to help a local homeless woman.  Her brother has disappeared.  Her family who believes he is living on the streets wants nothing more that to get a call from him just so they can know how he is doing and that he is still alive. The girl in the story believes someone must be out there waiting to hear from Red, so she wants to convince Red to make a call home.

My colleague loves the book, but at the halfway mark there is already too much mature content for the sixth grade.  So, I will be reading Saving Red, but I won’t be pushing it as the school wide read for next year.

So we’re still looking.  We have a list of current books we’ll be working through over the next few weeks. I’d like to get a title selected before the end of the year. We’d like something that can work in all subjects, but we’ll settle for something that reaches over to three subjects or even two.  Non-fiction is preferred, but not required.

Any ideas?


Sunday Ramble: Travels, Art and Jane Austen Challenge

C.J. and I visited Los Angeles this past week to see the James Kerry Marshall retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the same show we saw last summer in Chicago.  We’ve become big fans of Mr. Marshall’s work.

It was a mad-cap three-day trip–drive down, day in L.A. and drive home–but we managed to visit three bookstores while we were there.  We stayed in West Hollywood, just a few blocks from the Sunset Strip area which is all very nice now, very high-end and very young. We walked down to Melrose Place for breakfast coffee at Alfred’s, which serves beautiful people beautiful lattes.  Lots of window shopping at high end antique stores afterwards on the way back to our very cheap motel.

Up on Sunset, near Book Soup, we found our new favorite bookstore, Mystery Pier Books Inc. which sells only first editions.  It’s a small store in a small building behind the main buildings.  You have to walk down a very narrow alley, the kind typically used as a service entrance, to get to the store which means very few customers find it.  There were just four of us in the store Wednesday afternoon.  The clerks are friendly and helpful, the selection is wide and fascinating, and the prices are high.  I can’t say if they are too high since I have no idea what a mint condition first edition of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show is worth.  It was more than I could afford in any case.

My latte at Alfred’s Coffee on Melrose Place in Los Angeles.

We made it out of Book Soup without going over 100 dollars which is nearly a miracle.  My standard for quality bookstores is based on how many titles they carry that I’ve never seen before but have to have. There were many at Book Soup.  C.J. found several, too.  I’ve already started The Familiar by Mark Z. Danielewski which, turns out, has been on the market for nearly two years now though this is the first I’ve heard of it.  25 dollars and the first of four volumes, all four were on the shelf at Book Soup. I resisted and resisted, but gave in in the end.  I loved The House of Leaves which I highly, highly recommend.


The next night we went to The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. since the museum is just a ten minute walk away and C.J. had never been there.  The space is wonderful, inside an old bank.  The galleries and studios on the mezzanine are lots of fun, but if I stick to my standards, I have to admit that it’s not that great of a bookstore.  And I feel their prices are always one or two dollars too high. We left glad to have visited but empty-handed.

Mr. Marshall’s artwork, which we drove down to see, shall speak for itself.

In Chicago we spent our time trying to figure out what all of the images in each painting meant, what their history was, what they had to say socially and politically.   This time we were able to appreciated them as beautiful paintings. If you get a chance to see the show, see it.

Finally, on what is a rainy Easter morning in the Bay Area, I’ve been thinking about hosting a reading challenge.  I’ve been collecting Jane Austen novels, I’ve only Mansfield Park to go before I have all six of them, for a couple of months now.  I’m not hunting for them, just checking for them when I’m at a used book sale, looking for very cheap copies of each or for the Vintage Classics edition because I like the cover art. My plan is to read them all in order once I have them, one book a month.

Is that something people would like to join in.

Maybe call it The Jane Austen Read All-along?

It would start in July with Sense and Sensibility and end in December with Persuasion.  

I think it would be fun to do the same thing with Elizabeth Gaskell in 2018, though it will be harder to find cheap copies of hers here in America.  She’s much more popular in U.K

I may set something up later this month if people are interested.

Meanwhile, I’m reading away though I’m not finishing much lately.  I did read one of from the Brilliant but Short list, Jenny Offil’s Department of Speculation which was excellent though it has started to blend with the main plot of Danielewski’s The Familiar in my memory.  I’ll have to get a review up soon.  Besides that I’m still working through the first volume of Kevin Starr’s history of California.  Add to that the Danielewski book which is too large and heavy to read anywhere but on the dining room table and the essays in the James Kerry Marshall catalogue which I bought at great expense–art books come at a premium.  Also I’m reading Chan H0-kei’s The Borrowed in chunks since it’s made up of five separate stories featuring the same characters.

And it’s back to work tomorrow now that spring break has come to a close.

38 school days left, but who’s counting.


Mail Art From Lynne Gurnee

I received this oversize piece of mail art from Lynne Gurnee this past Monday. The artwork is from an original linocut piece called “She Was a Big Rat.”  Lynne has sent me several great pieces this year.

Lots of artists make mail art from their scraps and bit of things that didn’t quite work out as planned. I’m not sure that’s what happened here, but it’s often what I do.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

I’m going to assume you have read this book.

Probably in high school.

Even if your English teacher was not the best teacher you ever had, you probably got most of what there is to get in Animal Farm.  It’s a straightforward book;  Mr. Orwell makes sure that everyone understands  his point.  While the communist revolution may have started well, may have even brought peace, prosperity and equality for a while, Stalin soon seized power and destroyed all that was good about it.

I’m a firm believer that Mr. Orwell’s best work can be found in his non-fiction; there’s nothing in Animal Farm to compare with Homage to Catalonia or essays like “Shooting an Elephant”, but the story is still a good one, the critique of Stalinism is still a damning indictment and, unfortunately, Animal Farm still has a message relevant to our time. Even for those of us who never lived under Stalin.

Consider three examples:

1.  In Animal Farm there is a pig named Squealer who has, as his sole function, the job of convincing all the other animals that what their leader, Napoleon, the evil pig who represents Stalin, is doing is the right thing to do.  Squealer must face the animals and lie to them, cajole them, convince them that what they saw with their own eyes or lived through themselves, is not what really happened.  Squealer is Napoleon’s spin-meister, the media pig who corrects the story and tells everyone what “really” is true.  This keeps the animals from questioning their society, keeps them working from day to day without raising objection to how they are treated by those above them.  Squealer is the agent who convinces everyone not to question the status quo.  He must make everyone believe that the pigs should eat better food while working much less than they do.

2.  The dedicated, devoted worker Boxer, a draft horse, gives his all for the cause.  Whenever anything goes wrong, Boxer takes it upon himself to work harder, to get up earlier than before, work later, do more than his fare share, all he is capable of doing, to make sure that the job gets done and done as well as it can be.  Boxer never complains about the effort he puts into his work, never holds anyone else’s lack of effort against them, never questions those in charge.  He has faith that his work will be rewarded one day with retirement to the pasture set aside for him and for others where he can peacefully live out his old age.   Instead, when he has worked himself so hard he can no longer do much of anything, he finds the retirement pasture  has been given over to growing wheat for the production of beer drunk only by the pigs in charge and he is sold to a glue factory.

3.  By the novel’s end a few pigs are  living the high life while the rest of the animals gain nothing from their labor.  They are told that they are better off than they were before under the oppressive farmer, and many of them still believe it, but the readers know this is not so.  The pigs are better off, surely, but the rest of the animals suffer to make this possible.

Sound familiar?

Darn that George Orwell.



I first ran this review on my old blog back in September of 2011.  Lately, there has been an uptick in sales of Orwell’s 1984 which I’m sure you’ve heard about.  I think this is a mistake.  I think Animal Farm is really the book we should be reading now, if we should be reading Orwell.  Reading my review above, I’ve come to conclude that we’re not dealing with another Big Brother but with a Napoleon, a greedy, egocentric pig who will sell us all out to make himself and those like him even fatter than they already are. 

Okay, that’s a little cynical, and I do try to avoid politics here, but that’s what I think.

The Death of the Author by Gilbert Adair

In the mid-twentieth century the author died.  At least as far as many university English departments were concerned. After critic/scholar Roland Barthes published his essay “The Death of the Author,”  whatever the author intended ceased to be of interest to a critical establishment determined to study the text and how it worked devoid of any reference to the author who created it.

I’m oversimplifying an idea I largely support here.  I am interested in the lives of authors, painters, poets and other artists, but at the end of the day, I believe, their work must stand or fall on its own.  Once the book has been published, the author no longer has exclusive rights to how it should be read.  The author may have wanted me to interpret a work a certain way, but after publication, that is no longer important.  As readers we are in charge interpretation.

This idea is attacked in Gilbert Adair’s take-no-prisoners satire, The Death of the Author.  In his novella Léopold Sfax,  literary critic, writes a book about “The Theory” which holds that the life of the author is unrelated to the author’s text.  Sfax’s theory takes the post-war academe by storm, sweeping through university English departments worldwide.  What the world doesn’t know is that Sfax created this theory in part to hide his own dubious history.  While living in occupied France as a young man, Sfax wanted so desperately to become a writer that he was willing to work for the Nazi forces writing propaganda pieces  under an assumed name.  It’s fear of exposure that leads him to invent “The Theory” as a means of securing his post war work’s reputation even if he cannot protect his personal one.

Later in the novella, Sfax comes up with the idea of denying the existence not only of the author but of the text itself.  In a brilliant bit of satire on Mr. Adair’s part, this new theory holds that the only agent truly acting is the reader, that the text itself is meaningless, too amorphous to be pinned down and commented on with authority.   Through this essay, entitled Either/Either (pronounce Eyether/Eether – this is important), Sfax hopes to make it possible for his followers to continue their devotion to him once his own biography and his early propaganda become known.  By denying both authorial and textual intent he can establish that his writing cannot be pro-Nazi, only readers can be pro-Nazi since the reader is the only true agent in the production and consumption of art.

If you keep the title in mind as you read, you’ll know what’s going to happen to Leopold Sfax.  But knowing this won’t spoil the fun of The Death of the Author.  Mr. Adair has enough tricks up his sleeve to delight his readers right up to the book’s final sentence. 

I expect The Death of the Author is a book I will re-read on a regular basis. 


I first ran this review on my old blog back in August of 2011.  I confess, in the years since, I have not re-read The Death of the Author though I often thing of doing so.  Maybe one day.