Three for the Kids: Schooled, Soldier X and Ranger’s Apprentice

I been re-woring my classroom bookclubs into a Reader’s Workshop hybrid sort of thing where the students read what they want and keep a log about what they are reading.  They then exchange logs with eachother, read them and write each other questions since there’s no way I’ll be able to keep up with 90 reading logs.  I hope to check each individual log once every two to three weeks to monitor progress.

To this mess I’ve added ‘reading races’ where the students and I all read or 20 minutes against a countdown clock.  Afterwards, we all calculate the number of words we read and what our words per minute rate is.  

So far the kids love the ‘reading race’ part of my project and about half of them have figured out how to keep the reading logs.  We’re still working on those, but I’m not giving up yet.  

So I thought I’d run three reviews of YA books from my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.  All three of these are still very popular with my seventh graders, both high and low readers,  boys and girls.  

I liked them all, too.

Schooled by Gordon Korman is a fish out of water tale. Capricorn Anderson has spent his entire life living on the last hippie commune in America. He has had very limited contact with the mainstream world and knows almost nothing about how to get along in an American high school. Over the years, membership in the commune has dwindled to just Capricorn and his “grandmother” Rain. When Rain breaks her hip and has to spend six weeks in recovery, Capricorn is forced to leave the commune, move in with a foster family and go to high school. Chaos ensues.

Capricorn faces the world of high school with a kind of deadpan patience and a will to please that ultimately endears him to his teachers and his classmates. He has no sense of property, so he cannot understand why anyone would want to lock something up in a locker. He is made class president as a joke and told that he must learn everyone’s name. So he gets a copy of the school yearbook and begins to study the names and faces. As president he is put in charge of the student body’s checking account and begins writing checks for every good cause that comes along–he has no sense of money or of banks after all.

The story is told from multiple points of view; both Capricorns friends and his antagonists get a chance to give us their impressions of him. We also hear from Capricorn himself. The result is a funny and often charming novel about accepting people as they are. I recommend it for both boys and girls in middle school grades. I think it’s probably too young for high school age readers, though it is set in high school. So far, my students are universal fans of Schooled. They all loved the ending, too.

 

Soldier X by Don Wulffson is the story of Aleksandr Dukhanov, a 15-year-old German boy who is drafted to fight on the Russian front towards the end of World War II. He is given a few weeks of training, lightly armed and sent east just as he turns 16 and it becomes legal for him to be a soldier in the German army. Soon, the Germans are defeated and Alexksandr finds himself behind the lines with the Russian army approaching. The Russians are shooting every German soldier they find and bayoneting the bodies of the dead just to be certain no one is pretending, so Alexsandr makes a desperate move, he trades uniforms with a Russian casualty.

While they lived in Germany, Alexsandr’s family was Russian, so he speaks the language fluently. He is able to pass himself off as a wounded Russian soldier and is sent to recover in a nearby hospital. While there he meets a young nurse, Tamara. Both young people are disenchanted with their nations; Alexsandr’s family faced persecution under the Nazi’s because they were ethnic Russian while Tamara’s family faced persecution because her father is anti-communist. During the chaos of the last days of the war, the two make an escape. They head west in an attempt to escape the Russian forces, hoping to dodge the retreating German army as well.

Soldier X is written for young adults and was certainly successful with my students (It’s also in high demand at my school’s library.) The writing is economic–tense and taut. Just enough historical detail is given to make things interesting without getting bogged down in detail. It’s such a good page turner than the reader is completely unaware that it’s also an education; everything Child 44 tried unsuccessfully to be. In fact, the book group that just finished it, a group of 7th grade boys, argued about whether or not the story is true they were so convinced that it was all real. High praise in my book.

 

Ranger’s Apprentice Book One: The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan came from one of my students with the highest recommendation. According to her it’s one of the best books ever, and she should know, she reads at least one book a day. In fact, she is one of those rare students that I can actually scold for reading when she shouldn’t be in good conscience. (There simply are times when one must set one’s book aside and pay attention to the teacher, especially if you are sitting in the front row.)

My student likes the book more than I do, but that’s okay. The story is a fantasy, though there are so few magical elements in it that it’s very close to historical fiction. Will, who has just turned fifteen is apprenticed to a Ranger, one of a mysterious brotherhood whose exact role in the kingdom’s society is unclear. Will wanted to go to battle school to become a knight as many boys his age do. After spending some time with his new master, the ranger named Halt, Will comes to see that the Rangers have an important part to play in the impending war with Lord Morgarath and that he is, in the end, a natural Ranger himself.

One thing that made this novel stand out for me was, as I mentioned above, was the absence of magic. There are four children at the start of the novel, four friends, who are all assigned apprenticeships in the book’s opening chapters, much like the sorting hat scenes in Harry Potter or the rite of passage described in The Giver, but none of the children are made apprentice wizards. In the kingdom of Araluen, magic is taboo, not to be trusted or used. As far as one can tell from reading the first book in the series, it does not exist. The situation is very close to historical medieval Europe where witchcraft was something people believed in, but they believed it was always evil.

Will’s rival, Horace, does go to battle school where he is bullied far worse than anything he ever did to Will before they turned 15. Horace’s subplot serves as a counterpoint to Will’s. Where Will learns the in’s and out’s of how to move through the environment without anyone noticing you and how to spot the changes around you in order to avoid attack and to track your prey, Horace learns the details of swordplay and how to force one’s opponent to submit through force. Their former physical rivalry becomes of test of which is superiour, cunning or muscle. The two come together towards the middle of the book when the Ranger Halt makes it possible for Horace to turn the tables on the three boys who bullied him for so long. My student lists this as her favorite part of the book.

This was my main problem with Ranger’s Apprentice. There are three very exciting scenes in the book, three fights. The Horace’s revenge is the second one and it’s by far the best. The third fight, the one against the Kalkara which are a sort of magical monster, the only magical element in the novel, is not as exciting. My student did not have a problem with this, but personally, I wanted a bit more of a pay-off in the end. This is the first book in a series, so the big pay-off my be down the road.

I’ve described three fights in this review, but do not think Ranger’s Apprentice is a particularly violent book. I don’t think it is, but it is the story of how two boys train for war. It’s also a story of finding a friend and of finding one’s place in the world. My student wanted me to read it because she thought it would be a great book for our class book clubs, and I agree. It is an exciting start to a series of books, perfect for middle school age readers, reluctant or not. An adventure story with exciting combat and lessons on how to use a sword and how to sneak around unseen, what 13-year-old could resist?

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2 Comments

  1. Jim Randolph says:

    Yes, my wife and her students are big fans of the Ranger’s Apprentice series and she confirms that there is almost no magic in the series. I read and enjoyed the first one. She says they’re all equally good an now he has another series so it should keep your friends going for a while.

    1. I wondered if he was aiming for students whose religions forbid reading books with magic. I guess if there is magic in the later books, then this is not the case. But I thought it was kind of nice to have a fantasy series for non-magical students.

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