by Maria Schulz
Although I do make fun of my Catholic school upbringing quite a bit, one of the best things I got from my 8 years there was a profound love of a good book.
The first person to unwittingly spur me on to read as much as I could in as little time as possible was my 2nd, 4th, & 5th grade teacher. Let’s call her Mrs. Calabash. Mrs. C. was very young and didn’t know exactly how to get us to achieve more. So, naturally, she pitted us against one another.
“Here’s my reading chart,” she said one bright September morning. “I want you all to read books, so every time you finish one, I will give you a gold star.”
Everybody’s name was on there, with a line that connected his or her name to every month from September to June.
I remember thinking, “oh who cares? I’m not going to kill myself for a stinking gold star.” But then, I noticed that one of her pets (let’s call him Ronnie) started the month of September with 10 gold stars while the rest of us had none.
“How come he gets to start with 10?” I asked.
“Ronnie read 10 books over the summer, didn’t you?” she said to him, the way I might say to my dog, “you walked so nicely on the leash, didn’t you?’
Ronnie nodded his head. I half expected her to pop a milk bone in his mouth.
“I read books over the summer,” I said. “Why can’t I get any stars?”
“Yeah,” my classmates chimed in. “So did we!”
Mrs. C. looked dumbfounded. It was a look I would get to know quite well by the third time I had her. “I’m not giving everyone gold stars,” she stammered. I thought she was just being a bossy old cow (meanwhile she was about 22 years old), but I think it was because she probably didn’t have enough stars to start handing them out like…well, gold stars.
“How are we ever supposed to catch up to Ronnie now?” I said.
“You probably won’t,” Mrs. C. replied. I like to think that she was trying to egg me on, but I really think she didn’t expect much from me and was trying to save me from my impending disappointment.
“Watch me,” I said.
By June, I had crushed her poor Ronnie, and had more gold stars than anyone else in the class. I’m not sure who looked sadder, Robbie or Mrs. C., when she handed me my reward. I thought I’d get a trophy or even a cookie. But what did I get? A gold star.
Though Mrs. C. isn’t around with her oak tag reading chart any more, the practice of picking up books and zipping through them was engrained for life. The thing about reading is that I can’t wait to share what I’ve just read, especially when it’s so entertaining. So, in that spirit, I’ve compiled a list of 7 of the best books I’ve read in awhile. Hopefully, you’ll find something here that you can read too.
By R. J. Palacio
This is the story of August, a 10-year-old boy born with a severe facial deformity. He is very much beloved by his mother, father and sister, who have kept him safe and cocooned as a homeschooler. But now, his mother decides that it’s time for August to face the world as he is—and hope that the world will recognize the beautiful child underneath the horrific deformities.
We get to hear August’s story from the vantage point of several different characters. There are his parents, who want August to grow up and face the world, but who are terrified that the world will prove to be horribly unkind. There’s his sister, who struggles to protect her little brother while also feeling overwhelmed by feelings of resentment for him and the wish that just once she could have a “normal” family. There are his classmates, who struggle to be understanding but just don’t know how to overcome their fears. And then there’s August, a charming, funny boy who wishes, more than anything else, that he could be anything but ugly.
At times funny, unsettling, heartwarming and heartbreaking, this book is ultimately about hope, compassion, courage and acceptance.
My rating: 4 ½ Gold Stars
The Fault in Our Stars
By John Green
When I first picked up this book, I thought: “oh no. Not another book about precocious teenagers.” But from the first chapter when I met the main character, Hazel, I was hooked.
Hazel is a 16-year-old cancer “survivor” with very visible battle scars. She has to take her oxygen tank wherever she goes, and most days, she wishes she had just lost the battle. Her depression leads her doctor to recommend a teen cancer support group, which Hazel reluctantly agrees to attend.
That’s where bright, funny, and terminally ill Hazel meets Augustus, one of the “lucky” ones who has a great prognosis, but who had to lose a leg in order to survive the fight. The two immediately bond over a book that Hazel loves called “An Imperial Affliction” that’s about cancer.
Somehow, Hazel forgives Augustus for not knowing what it is to be terminally ill, and their friendship blossoms and grows.
Can a book about kids with cancer be funny? YES! This book is not maudlin or a downer. It is poignant, thought provoking, and moving. I read it in one day. Don’t miss it.
My rating: 4 ½ Gold Stars
The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
I read this book when I was flying to and from California, and I have never enjoyed air travel so much. For once, I wasn’t miserable or overwhelmed by feelings of being trapped in the cattle car known as coach.
This time, out, our intrepid narrator is none other than Death. He’s got a job to do, and his workload has increased exponentially thanks to the setting: Nazi Germany during World War II.
Leisel Meminger has seen her share of horrors by the time she lands in the home of her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. This well-meaning couple urge her to call them Pappa and Mamma, and they are good to her, but nightmares still haunt Leisel every night. It is Pappa who teaches Leisel how to read when nightmares make sleeping impossible.
Death guides us as we meet the people who give Leisel’s new world meaning. Mamma and Pappa; Rudy, the neighbor boy who would give Leisel anything for a kiss; the Mayor’s wife, who has a room filled with books that she lets Leisel “steal;” Max, the Jew her foster parents hide in the basement; and the colorful neighbors, some of whom are ardent Nazis.
I’m not sure why this book is categorized as YA (Young Adult), but it’s spellbinding. I would rank it right up there with some of the best books I’ve ever read. Profound, moving, heart-wrenching and unforgettable, it’s the kind of book that you just can’t put down (don’t let the 700+ page count put you off). Steal a copy if you must (just kidding, folks), but read it!
My rating: 5 Gold Stars
The Hunger Games
By Suzanne Collins
Okay, so the concept of a dystopian society that has starving children fighting to the death so their families can get a little extra food is one BIG reason that I didn’t want to read this book. But my teenager said, “Mom, you’ve got to read it!” So I did – and it was great!
The Hunger Games are a death match on steroids, pitting kids against kids, for the amusement of a national TV audience. It’s reality TV to the nth degree, and it all starts with “the reaping,” a process by which the rulers choose 2 kids (one boy and one girl) from each district.
When Katniss Everdeen hears her little sister, Prim’s, name called at the yearly reaping ceremony, she rushes forward to take her place. Since Katniss spends her days hunting with a bow and arrow to feed her mother and sister, learning how to set traps and catch fast-moving game with her best friend, Gale, and gathering edible and poisonous plants (a skill she learned from her long-dead father) she seems to at least have a fighting chance.
Katniss promises her sister that she will come home and kill everyone else if she must, until she sees who her fellow District 12 contestant will be: Peeta Malarkey. Peeta, the baker’s son, saved Katniss from starvation by giving her bread to eat after her father died in the mines. Will she be able to kill him – or any of the others—when the time comes? And how will she deal with the horrors in store for her?
Are parts of this story silly? Yes. Will it keep you from staying up late to read it? No. Go ahead – read it! You won’t be sorry.
My rating: 4 Stars
The Language of Flowers
By Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Victoria Jones has spent her whole life in the foster care system. The only time she ever felt loved was when her foster mother, Elizabeth, took her in. Elizabeth owned a vineyard and taught Victoria how to tell when grapes were ripe and ready for the harvest; how to act responsibly and be respectful; and the intricacies of the Victorian language of flowers.
Elizabeth was supposed to adopt her, but a disastrous secret lands Victoria straight back in foster care, where she stays until she is emancipated at the age of 18.
With nowhere to go and no one to love her, Victoria starts living in a public park. Her natural gifts as a flower arranger help her get a job with a local florist. It’s there that Victoria’s life and hopes to find love, forgiveness and community slowly begin to blossom.
This book was beautifully written and it made me keep turning the page to see what would happen next. I have to admit, I found Victoria infuriating at times, but her child-like desire to say “yes” to love even while she screamed “no” had me addicted.
My rating: 4 Gold Stars
The Story of Beautiful Girl
By Rachel Simon
The year is 1968. On a stormy night, Martha sits alone in her home. She’s a retired teacher who is recently widowed. Her life is quiet and uneventful, and she wonders if it will always be this way. Suddenly, someone is pounding on her door.
Against her better judgment, she opens the door to find two people standing there in the rain. A pretty, slow-witted woman in a huge trench coat is standing next to an African American man who is deaf.
Sensing something is very wrong, Martha ushers them into her house. She soon discovers that the pair is hiding something under the woman’s big coat: a brand new baby girl.
Martha takes them up into her attic and offers them dry clothes, some food, and a place to sleep. But it isn’t long until the police arrive, demanding to know where the man and woman are hiding. It seems that the pair ran away from a local home for the mentally impaired.
The man (named Homan) is able to escape, but the woman (named Lynnie) is captured. Before she goes, she whispers the only thing she can to Martha: “Hide her.”
Now, Martha finds herself with a brand new baby girl and a quest to keep the baby safe for Lynnie.
The book follows Lynnie, Homan and Martha across the years as they each try to survive and find meaning in their lives.
My friend, Suzanne, recommended this book to me and I really enjoyed it. What I loved most about it was that it showed people with disabilities as REAL people with hopes and dreams. Their disabilities were not the things that defined them; they were secondary characteristics, like blue eyes or a Spanish accent. Lynnie and Homan were people who were no less human than anyone else.
Read it – you won’t be sorry.
My rating: 4 ½ Gold Stars
We Need to Talk About Kevin
By Lionel Shriver
I really didn’t want to read this book. It’s about a kid who goes on a rampage and kills his classmates and teacher for no good reason, and you know that from page 1.
However, it was a book club pick, and since I didn’t want to sit there silently eating all the cheesecake and pastries while everyone else talked about the book, I read it.
With that being said, I was immediately pulled into the plot. It’s told from the mom’s point of view, and her horror and revulsion towards her son for his heinous crimes is painfully obvious.
What makes it even worse is that she never really even LIKED her son. She found him impossible to be with from the moment of his birth, and often found herself wishing he had never been born.
Realizing that these are horrible thoughts for any mother to have, she immediately overcompensates by quitting a job she loves and built from the ground up. She lets her babysitter go, even though it was nearly impossible to find one who would stay since they always complained that Kevin was a miserable, spiteful child. Her husband refuses to see how rotten Kevin really is, and blames his wife for not “liking their boy.”
Through letters written to her now absent husband, Franklin, Eva details her early, mounting suspicions that Kevin is headed for trouble.
In the beginning of this book, I couldn’t stand Eva. Her tone was pompous and she was hard to like. I really didn’t care what happened to her or her stupid kid.
But as the tension mounted, I began to suspect Kevin of many more horrors and could see how his mother tried to be vigilant, but missed all the warning signs. In fact, the last couple of hundred pages just zoomed by as the stakes were ratcheted up notch by notch.
By turns infuriating, pulse-pounding and exhausting, this book delivers a thoroughly disturbing climax and an unexpected resolution. It makes you think about love, redemption, powerlessness, and parenthood all at once.
My Rating: 4 ½ Gold Stars
Each of these books are entertaining in their own way. Read one (or all of them) and maybe you’ll love it as much as I did.
As far as my love of reading goes, all I can do is paraphrase Jimmy Durante: thank you Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.
Did someone say cheesecake? Oh yeah, that was me. Here’s a recipe for cheesecake with blueberries that got a 5-Star Rating on FoodNetwork.com:
So, Hungry Lifers…now that I’ve shared some of my recent favorite books – what are yours? Did you ever have a teacher who taught you to love reading (whether they meant to or not?) Do you like cheesecake? Please leave a comment and let us all know. Thanks!