Book Review: The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary

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Image from Carolrhoda Lab Books via readdisruptrepeat.

DISCLAIMER: I hesitated to write about this book because Ashley Hope Pérez has already written the perfect review, excerpted on the back cover: “I WANTED TO BURN DOWN THE WHOLE DAMN WORLD AND BUILD A NEW ONE WORTHY OF MACY. . . . UNFORGETTABLE.” But maybe you haven’t seen the book, let alone picked it up. In that case, allow me to introduce you to Nonieqa Ramos’s novel: The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary.

Be sure to fasten your seatbelt, because the Dictionary is a helluva ride.

FOR: Teens and up

SUMMARY: As the Library of Congress says, “Fifteen-year-old Macy, officially labeled ‘disturbed’ by her school, records her impressions of her rough neighborhood and home life as she tries to rescue her brother from Child Protective Services, win back her overachieving best friend after a fight, and figure out whether to tell her incarcerated father about her mother’s cheating.”

Whoa, right? This book goes straight to the jugular. This is not a tidy, predictable story about a troubled teenager, `a la ABC Afterschool Special. This is a raw and unsettling journey.

As you’ve probably gathered, the Dictionary is a page turner, but not a beach read. This book tackles many serious issues and themes: loyalty, neglect, hunger, education, sexual assault, foster care, friendship, prostitution, poverty, ADHD, kindness, and drug use. Somehow, in the midst of such hefty subject matter, there is also a great deal of humor. Kudos, Ms. Ramos.

FIVE THINGS THAT MAKE THIS NOVEL EXTRAORDINARY:

  1. It is a dictionary. Given the title, that should have been obvious, but when I read the words, “See H for Helmet,” it took me a while to realize that I could actually thumb through the book to find an entry entitled “Helmet.” (Among the H’s, no less.) But the words are defined on Macy’s terms. Macy has clearly had enough of the definitions forced upon her, like “disturbed.” This is our chance to see her actions from her perspective. Why does she steal from the grocery store, but refuse to eat what’s in the fridge? Why does she torment her history teacher and deface school property? Why does she give her mother’s coat to a prostitute? Or punch a boy in the jaw?
  2. The Dictionary is a diary as well. Macy (last name MYOFB) writes in it whenever she has time—e.g., outside the Principal’s office, waiting to be reprimanded, or in Homework Club with the supremely wonderful Miss Black. Macy’s opening entry is “ALWAYS/NEVER,” a linguistic combination that her history teacher considers grammatically flawed. Macy proves otherwise in the most poignant of ways. Have tissues handy.
  3. The chaos of the protagonist’s external and internal life is reflected in the structure of the book, which is arranged neither chronologically nor, technically, alphabetically. Mostly the entries are lumped like DVDs at the library: A-W-A-Y before AFRAID, MONSTERS before MAYBE, but then BURY comes after FIRELIGHT. Go figure. What is revealed—and when—depends on what Macy is moved to share at any given moment, so I recommend reading a hard copy to facilitate flipping back and forth between cross-references and entries.
  4. Nothing is cut and dried. The book raises a lot of questions and doesn’t pretend to have all of the answers. Is her brother better off in foster care? Why does Macy’s friend George wear a helmet? Even Macy doesn’t seem to know. That’s OK with me; I don’t need everything explained in essay form. As Macy explains, LIFE IS NEVER LIKE THAT anyway.
  5. Macy frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the reader directly—and with a great deal of irreverence and profanity. She calls the reader out for a myriad of grievances: for reading over her shoulder, for being surprised she has heard of Odysseus, for not knowing a thing about Agüeybaná. To give you a taste of her confrontational yet humorous style, here is the entry filed under “DEAR READER:”

You are the person that I’m going to hunt down and assassinate when I find out you took my dictionary. I will hit your head so hard against the sink you won’t remember anything I wrote. . .Yes, the sink. That way I can wash your blood off my hands so I don’t ruin my sweatshirt.

Luckily she didn’t catch me reading it.

You may be wondering, is this a perfect book? Close, but the answer is no. There were passages that I had to read and reread, a few bits and pieces that didn’t ring true. Since the narrator is openly struggling and unreliable, let’s assume that was intentional. In any event, it doesn’t matter. Macy burst into three dimensions and haunted me long after I finished the book. I can still see her sleeping in the tub, swallowing paper, sneaking books from the recycling, saving two m&ms. She is all too real.

I HEART Macy. My recommendation? Buckle up and get to know her.

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The Hate U Give

image credit: libro.fm

posted by: Beret

Wow. This book.

It’s hard to know where to start besides the obvious: READ THIS BOOK.

Quick Plot Summary: The Hate U Give is about a sixteen-year-old African American girl caught between the two worlds she inhabits: Garden City, the economically disadvantaged neighborhood where she lives, and Williamson Prep, the elite private school she attends in the suburbs. In her struggle to belong in both worlds, we see Starr constantly jockeying to make the transition between home and school appear seamless.

In and of itself, that alone could fill a book, but first-time novelist Angie Thomas has decided to take on an incendiary current issue besides. She puts Starr in a car with a childhood friend when he is pulled over by the police, shot, and killed. As the sole witness, Starr has to grapple with a difficult choice: whether to speak up on Khalil’s behalf, or maintain her safety and anonymity at the expense of justice. Continue reading “The Hate U Give”

Book Review: Fish in a Tree

From www.mrschureads.blogspot.com
From http://www.mrschureads.blogspot.com

posted by Beret.

Reading level:  4-6 grade. The protagonist is in sixth grade, however, and she wouldn’t have been able to read it. In fact, that’s the point. This book is for anyone who has ever struggled in school or felt like they didn’t fit in.

One rainy day last July, I wandered into a bookshop and accidentally left with a stack of five new hardcovers. Just what I needed for my suitcase.

The clerk was lovely. She agreed enthusiastically with all of my opinions–which is terribly charming–and I bought Fish in a Tree based on her recommendation and its adorable cover. So much for judging books by their contents…although, I finished it last night, and that’s what I’m set to do now.

I loved it. Here’s why… Continue reading “Book Review: Fish in a Tree”

Misfit Lit: Counting by 7s

From http://www.us.penguingroup.com/
From http://www.us.penguingroup.com/

posted by Beret.

Age Range: Grades 5-8.

I’ve always had a soft spot for what I call “misfit lit.” Into this category I throw a few of the best books for young people I’ve read in the recent past: Loser, by Jerry Spinneli; Wonder, by R.J. Palacio; and A Mango-Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass. A major appeal of these books is that everyone feels like an alien at some point in their lives–often and particularly in middle school. Delving into the brain of an outsider and seeing how they experience and cope with difference can be both comforting and empowering. It could also encourage young people to look for what they might have in common with others, no matter how different they appear to be.

Counting by 7s is no exception. What is unique is that we spend a good deal of the book inside the head of Willow Chance–a girl with incredible intellectual gifts and a penchant for botany, medical texts, and the number seven. The author, Holly Goldberg Sloan, does not water down Willow’s vocabulary or personality in any way to make her character easier to swallow. In fact, it isn’t important for the reader to understand everything the main protagonist says or does throughout the novel in order to grasp her emotional turmoil and her desperate need to cope and connect. Continue reading “Misfit Lit: Counting by 7s”

Ridiculously Simple Single-Sheet-of-Paper Books

opening

posted by Beret

Here’s a little book I loved to make with my students. We used them for quick book reports and biographies, for poems, and as tiny sketchbooks or journals. They were perfect for outdoor writing, for science class, and field trips. They’re small, portable, easy, and cheap.   Continue reading “Ridiculously Simple Single-Sheet-of-Paper Books”

Early Onset Activism

posted by Gina

Let’s make this month a trifecta of book posts, shall we?

We’re approaching May 1st, and I was remembering the day of protests back in 2006, when I was teaching in San Francisco. My high school students, many first generation, took the protests incredibly seriously, and I remember being impressed at how many of them took the day to do thoughtful work, and how few looked upon the boycott as an excuse to just miss school.

I was lucky enough to be at a school that encouraged discussion with and support of our students, so we spent a lot of time talking that week – in advisory, in class, in the hall. We don’t often give our young people enough credit for their thoughts and ideas, particularly as they think upon the state of the world and the way in which they can make their voices heard.

I stumbled across this post recently. You know how I love lists of book recommendations – well, this one seems timely.

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Continue reading “Early Onset Activism”

Bookmaking: Theater Books

cover

posted by Beret.

A few weeks ago, I cleaned out a closet and discovered the instructions for making theater books. I don’t know how many times I’ve looked unsuccessfully for that sheet of paper over the years, but many. 

I promptly re-lost the paper.

Today–miraculously!–I’m holding it again in my grubby fist, so I will post these instructions posthaste in hopes that, in the future, I might relocate them at will. Hopefully, you will also be inspired to try this at school or at home with a child/glass of wine/tolerant spouse.

 What you need:

materials

  • A piece of 8 1/2 x 11″ paper.
  • A pair of scissors.

Think you can handle that? Continue reading “Bookmaking: Theater Books”