Book Reports: Do Kids Still Have to Write Them? (‘cause if they do, teachers, here’s a suggestion…)

§   Monthly book reports were a class requirement throughout all of my elementary school years  §

I am a prolific reader. It’s nothing for me to knock back two or even three light mystery novels a week, especially as I prefer reading to watching TV.  I am also a prolific reviewer; as I mentioned in an earlier post, I style myself “The Savage Reviewer”. (Scroll to the end if you’d like to locate and read that post.)

Due to the number of books I read, though, I’m not merely a reader and reviewer; I’m also a major consumer of reviews. So I find myself constantly amazed (and irked! Decidedly irked!  Really, really, really irked!) by readers who can’t compose a helpful book review.

These are, obviously, people who enjoy reading. Since they are taking the time to write a review, one would suppose that they probably (as I do) rely heavily on these assessments before purchasing a book. Despite these obvious facts, though, instead of writing a review, they produce what is, in essence, a book report.  An elementary school book report!

Honestly, I’m not certain if today’s students are still required to write them, but composing monthly book reports was enforced throughout my school years as an additional study obligation to our classroom textbooks. These were descriptive plot summaries which proved we students had completely grasped the contents of a novel.

Each book report consisted of specific components: the names of the main characters, the location where the action took place, and a brief description of the plot. As we students grew older, our papers became more complex.  Character motives and the theme of the novel were added, and sometimes, even the reasons why we did or did not like the story.  And it is only those “grown up” categories—liked/disliked, motives, themes, and behaviors—that actually have any real place in today’s reader book review process.

The liked/disliked category, nothing more than a row of stars, should be basic enough for the most profound moron.  Nevertheless, some critics manage to botch even that, awarding only a single star to a book they genuinely liked.  From the stars, a review dives into a headline. Most reviewers seem to manage that with the requisite flair, providing quick, all encompassing phrases such as, “Loved This Book!”, or “Worst Book EVER”.  But their remarks often cascade downhill from that point.

Plot summaries and teasers were once the province of dust jackets or back covers, whereas now they generally reside in the online synopsis labeled “Product Description”. But all too often, what passes for a review is nothing more than another synopsis–unfortunately, often replete with spoilers. “After 20 years away, Emily returns home to open a bakery, and her first customer drops dead in front of the cash register!” So the reviews trumpet, one after another.  Great. Thanks. Now I don’t really need bother reading the first chapter of the book.

Skimming these reviews, I grit my teeth. I don’t want to know WHAT happens—I’ve already surmised that from reading the online synopsis. I want genuinely pertinent information that might help me decide if this is a book I want to read. Is the book riddled with typos, misspellings,  rotten sentence structure and poor grammar? Is the poor grammar limited to the characters’ slang speech, or is it part of the text itself? Are the characters three-dimensional, with clearly-defined motives? Are their actions, behavior and speech realistic? Does the book move forward briskly, or does it creep at a snail’s pace? Does it keep one’s attention, or are there long, boring digressions in the plot? Is it humorous, or witty, or even laugh-out-loud funny? Is it depressing, sad? Exciting, thrilling? Terrifying? Is the ending satisfactory, or does it leave the reader hanging, without real resolution? (Or, worse, is the reader intentionally left dangling on a hook intended to make her or him buy the next book in the series?) Can you, the reader, put your finger on just why you did/did not like the book, or are your feelings amorphous—i.e., you hated it, but you can’t quite say exactly why that should be. Do you recommend the book? Would you tell friends, “Don’t bother”?

These are the elements that need to be incorporated into a genuine book review, and rarely are.

Book critics still abound, but, more and more, most of us rely on the advice and opinions of  readers like ourselves. Bearing that in mind, teachers, here’s a recommendation: Perhaps you need no longer require your students to produce book reports.  Instead, maybe you should grade them on just how well they can write a book review.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to check the archives for
“The Savage Reviewer”, posted on 09/02/2020; or
“To Review or Not Review”, from 12/13/2017, or the upcoming “The Savage Reviewer, Part 2” , TBA.

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

§   Unwrapping my prize from the shipping package, I took a step backwards into my 10-year-old self, rereading in delight the nearly-forgotten trials and tribulations of a little girl so like myself.  §

When I was in the fifth grade, my all-time favorite teacher, Miss Shireman, gave me a book to read titled Miss Happiness and Miss Flower.   That book, written by Rumer Godden, became a lifeline for me.

The story describes the adventures of the eight-year-old Nona, who has been sent home from India to live with her British relatives. Lost in a unfamiliar culture, surrounded by strangers, cut off from everything she has ever known, Nona retreats into herself, terrified and abandoned, until she is given the gift of two Japanese dolls (the Miss Happiness and Miss Flower of the title).

I can say without intentional punning that the book spoke volumes to me.

I still recall Miss Shireman asking me if I was enjoying the book, and my enthusiastic reply. She smiled as she remarked that she’d been sure I would like it. Looking back through the mists of time, now, I wonder—how did she know? How did she know that I, enduring my first year in a new school and feeling so frightened and lonely that I could have died, needed that story? But Miss Shireman always seemed to understand what her young students were thinking and feeling, and did whatever she could to mitigate their distress.

A large part of the book concerns the Japanese doll house which the main character’s cousin builds for her dolls. I remember trying unsuccessfully to convince my older brother to build such a dollhouse for me. I also remember him throwing very cold water on the idea! But not long ago, reminiscing about my own daughter’s childhood dollhouse, now stored in the attic of my father’s home, I unexpectedly recalled the Japanese dollhouse of the story, and the book itself, and how much it meant to the child I’d once been.

Misses Happiness and FlowerIntrigued, I searched for the book, locating a copy on a used book site. The price was not exorbitant, and I could not resist; I immediately slapped down my credit card to order it. The precious book appeared in my mailbox during the weeks of Covid-19 lockdown, and I reverently carried it into the house like the treasure it was.

Already, during the weary hours and days of lockdown, I’d learned that I was resistant to reading anything new. Despite the fact that reading is my passion, I faced hourly headlines summarizing chaos, death and panic.  I couldn’t bear to begin a novel. A new book might kill off a character I liked, or direct a series down a route that I hadn’t wanted it to go. It might be badly written, or irritating or upsetting.

Instead, I took comfort in rereading both old and recent favorites: Tracey Quinn’s hilarious Breezy Spoon Diner series and Clara Benson’s marvelous Angela Marchmont mysteries.  The timeless classics of Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting. The Moonspinners.  I delved into the familiar, fantastic and funny world of Kim Watt’s Beaufort Scales dragon cozies. I travelled once more to Aunt Bessie’s home on the Isle of Mann, and the secretive world of McIntyre’s Gulch in the Canadian north.

And now, unwrapping my prize from the shipping package, I took a step even further back into my comfort zone, communing with my 10-year-old self, rereading in delight the nearly-forgotten trials and tribulations of the little girl I had so resembled. There she was, just as I remembered her: a young girl trying to adapt to a totally unfamiliar setting, friendless and frightened—exactly the situation in which I had lived at that age.

Rereading the book, I was delighted to find it just as enchanting a story as I recalled.  I marveled at the fact that at age 10, I’d been able to work my way without help through unfamiliar British terms and spellings, and to visualize a town so different from those that I, a suburban kid, had always known. How astounding and wonderful to have a bookstore on the same street as one’s home! And my adult-self thanked heaven that the book, written in 1960, predated the British changeover to the metric system, for then I might have been truly lost.

But what I really gained from re-reading this childhood favorite was a surprising realization of my own unquenchable spirit. At age 10, living in a new house that was not yet a home, lost and frightened in an unfamiliar neighborhood, too shy to make friends easily and trapped in a troubled, chaotic family situation, I, like the little girl of the story, somehow still found ways to adapt: to make friends, to be brave.

Half a century later, navigating the unfamiliar waterways of lockdown and pandemic, trapped in a home that’s begun to feel more like a prison than familiar territory, and lonelier than I have ever been throughout a very solitary life, I find it once more necessary to call upon that unquenchable spirit. She is in there still, somewhere, that inner child; that flame of life force reignited by a childhood memory and a beloved story. She is still finding ways to adapt; to be a friend to herself, and, most of all, to be brave.

What I Really Learned in School

As mentioned in an earlier post, some of the most important lessons I learned in school were not in any way part of the curriculum. But when I consider the many subjects I studied throughout my school years,  I have to say that about seventy-five percent or more of them were pretty much useless to the life I would someday lead.

The most basic lessons – those which I completed within approximately the first six years of school – were also the most valuable. Reading was the most significant skill I ever learned, and coupled with it, the standard rules of grammar, composition, and  basic sentence structure and punctuation.  Oddly, though, it was not through the lessons taught in the classroom that I actually absorbed those rules of grammar, or learned to punctuate my sentences or the art of composition. I gained that knowledge through reading – reading voraciously and constantly.

General mathematics,  up to the point of long division, has always been a valuable skill, no matter how much I hated (and still do hate) it.  I was apparently cutting class on the day that math brain cells were handed out.  Despite that fact, when checkbooks were common and a even a very cheap calculator cost more than $100, I could still balance my checkbook using just  a pencil and paper, and did so every month.

And then there was the most useful physical skill I ever learned: typing. I learned to type on a manual typewriter, accurately, quickly, slapping the carriage return lever at the end of each line.  It was hard work.  It took genuine effort to punch those mechanical keys–not the light whisper of a touch for today’s keyboards.  Mistakes had to be erased by hand–even White Out hadn’t been invented–and the only spell check or grammar check was via a paper dictionary or one’s own head.  Compositions were drafted in longhand and then carefully edited with red pencil  before being finally typed out.

But what of all those other subjects – geography and world history, algebra, U.S. government, physical education, U.S. history, humanities, foreign language, shorthand, geometry? Oh, I remember bits and pieces of some those subjects, enough to, say,  place into context  my reading of the daily news. I know, theoretically, how the checks and balances of the three branches of U.S. government are supposed to work (and I know that they don’t really seem to work very well any longer, especially under the current administration).  I can pick out many of the countries on a map of the world, but I’m often confused by my memories of the globes I once studied, which bear so little relation to the demarcations of modern countries, or even their names.  Burma, Siam, Czechosloakia??  I can recall the dates of the great wars, but I’m still a little fuzzy on the reasons they were fought, which I don’t believe weren’t ever fully or accurately explained in the texts I studied.

The great majority of the learning that was shoved down my throat in my school years is mostly gone. I had no real need for it, so I shed it in favor of things more useful to my daily existence: How to read a bus schedule.  How to placate an unreasonable supervisor.  How too to fix a leaky toilet or dripping faucet.  How to soothe a teething toddler. How to survive pain and tragedy.

And, finally, long after I left school, I learned how to learn.

When  the Internet was non-existent and Google not even a faint ray on the horizon, I learned how to research any subject that truly interested me, not just through books and encyclopedias,  but through magazine articles and discussion with knowledgeable individuals.  I learned that history is mostly written by the winners – but that the truth was still out there, if one looked hard enough.  I learned to doubt, and question, and make informed decisions.  I learned that the gods of the old religions often become the devils of the new, and that this cycle has been endless throughout the eons of history.  I learned that cults are only effective if they can make one forget to be a grown-up.  I learned that if it seems too good to be true, it unquestionably is.  I learned that people are onions to be unwrapped, one brittle layer at a time.  I learned that evil is real, and ever present, and requires constant vigilance to be kept at bay – even in one’s own heart.

Education, I finally learned, is not something one gets, nor something one is given, but something acquired for oneself through struggle and effort: a hard-won gift one gives to oneself.  I learned, too, that if an individual is willing to do the endless hard work, education goes on for a lifetime.

And that was my greatest lesson of all.

Teachers, Good and Bad, Part 2

8th Grade Graduation

As I mentioned in a previous post, we all have memories of teachers we idolized, and others whom we absolutely despised. Sometimes, too, those memories are a mixed bag, such as when we received shabby treatment from a teacher we liked.  We all have those stories.  These are two of mine.

I adored my fifth grade teacher, Miss Shireman. Looking back through time using the eyes of an adult, I can see that she was one of those rare teachers who not only genuinely enjoyed teaching, but liked children, as well.  She devised endless wonderful projects and creative ways to engage us in learning.

But what eluded me completely in childhood was that, like all of us, my beloved teacher was human.  She had good and bad days, and sometimes those feelings affected her teaching.

One such bad day occurred during our study of Indiana history. Miss Shireman had assigned us to draw a map of Indiana and its counties, and given us a weekend to complete the assignment.

Draw a map of Wyoming or New Mexico – a cinch. But draw a map of Indiana, with its squiggly lower border and 92 counties?  Not so simple.

I sweated over that map. I carefully drew and erased and redrew that noxious bottom border, and struggled to fit in all the weirdly-shaped counties.  I worked as hard on it as I had ever done on any assignment, and felt pretty proud when I turned it in that Monday.

A few days later, I was shocked when Miss Shireman stood in front of us and slammed the handful of maps down on her desk, declaring her disgust over the poor work we’d all done. We were going to do the maps over, she announced, and this time, we’d better do them well.

I was devastated. I had tried so hard! I’d been so proud!  It took everything in me not to cry. But pride came to my aid.  I redid my map by tracing the one I’d already done.  I knew it was already my best work and I wasn’t about to redraw the whole darned thing.

It was not the first time I’d been scolded by a teacher for poor work when I knew I had tried my hardest, but, probably due to how well I liked Miss Shireman, it is the most painfully memorable.

Then came seventh grade.  Our teacher, Mr. Phillips (whom I didn’t dislike, but had no special liking for, either) encouraged our creativity and language development by having us write short stories.  In this, I was in my element.  I loved it…until the day he told us to choose an incident from American history as the basis for our story.

Wham! Writer’s block.  I HATED American history.  It seemed to me nothing but a series of bloody battles and hypocritical old white men trying to circumvent the Constitution and get rich by trampling the bodies and spirits of others (sort of like our current Administration).  I finally landed on one possible theme: the mysterious disappearance of the entire colony of Roanoke, Virginia.  That incident did intrigue me.

Once again, I sweated over the assignment. I wrote and rewrote that story, quickly learning that writing without inspiration was like slogging through knee-deep swamp mud.  I wasn’t precisely proud of the version I at last submitted, but I was satisfied.  So it was quite a slap in the face to receive my graded story back with a poor mark and the caustic comment written across it: “This is a very poor effort for you.”

Poor effort?! Did that jerk not understand how hard I had worked on that story?  It was my absolute very best damned effort under the circumstances, and he didn’t have the sense to appreciate it.

(Yes, it still makes me mad.)

There are numerous other memories of unhappy moments with teachers bopping about my memories of my years in school. I daresay everyone has memories like that.  And if these two stand out so prominently in my thoughts, it is mostly because of a sense of injustice.  I had done my very best, and was belittled despite it. But that in itself was a really important lesson for life, although probably not in the school syllabus.

I would need to use my fingers and my toes and then start on the strands of my hair to count the number of times in my working years that I was unjustly reprimanded. Small people given a little bit of authority often prove Lord Acton’s statement about the corrupting qualities of power. Being unjustly reprimanded by a boss at the office is a sad fact of life for most workers.

The most important lessons we learn in school are often not part of the curriculum. But they are probably the lessons we most need to prepare us for reality and for our future.

Teachers Good and Bad, Part 1

We all have memories, both as students and as parents, of teachers we idolized, and others whom we absolutely despised. Inevitably we felt sad when the school year ended and we said farewell to a beloved teacher; we sighed with relief when we finally walked out of the classroom of a teacher we totally loathed.

As a mother, I found that I rarely had strong feelings about my daughter’s teachers. If she liked them, I was pleased for her.  But when she disliked a teacher, I found that, unlike her, I could often see the logic behind what appeared to her to be unreasonable demands or “mean” behavior.

There were exceptions, however.

During her final year of middle school, in the midst of enduring her parents’ divorce and all the attendant anguish, my daughter Amanda encountered her teacher Waterloo in the form of a home economics teacher.

Let it be said right here that the gene for domesticity, if not having done a complete flyby, is not exactly strongly represented in the DNA of my cherished daughter. For instance, while trying to learn to how to operate a sewing machine, she ended up chasing the threaded bobbin straight across the classroom floor; to this day she cannot sew on a button, and iron-on hem tape is her friend.  She rose to the challenge of preparing instant pudding, but that just about concluded her culinary skills until she reached college.  In short, my beloved offspring was never going to be a domestic goddess. To place the cherry on the cake of household incompetence, the school guidance counselor arranged for her to attend an in-school support group for children enduring trauma, so she often missed home ec class to attend counseling sessions.

One afternoon Amanda stormed home and, with a face the picture of wrathful self-righteousness, told me that Waterloo Teacher had pulled her aside and advised her, “I don’t know what it is you’re going through, but if you keep missing classes for counseling, you’re not going to pass.”

That did it. Whatever other genetic material I myself might be missing, the Mother Bear Protecting Her Cub Gene is not among them! Before the clock had fully ticked over to the start of the next school day, I was on the phone to the class guidance counselor, reporting Mrs. Waterloo’s unfeeling pronouncement. “My daughter needs those group counseling sessions,” I raged.  “And frankly, there is absolutely no class that I care less about her passing than home economics!”  The guidance counselor assured me that she completely agreed with my viewpoint.  Amanda could continue her group counseling sessions, and, yes, Home Economics was the least important of all the classes she was taking that semester, which was why the counseling sessions had been scheduled at that time.  Waterloo Teacher’s attitude would, she assured me, be dealt with.

It seemed it was. No more was said on the subject of counseling interfering with classes.  And despite everything, Amanda passed home economics.

Throughout the semester of turmoil, though, I offered the solace, “This won’t last forever. Class will be over and then you’ll never have to see Mrs. Waterloo again.” And the school year having concluded, I consoled her and myself with the reassurance, “Well, you’re sure to have other crappy teachers, but at least you’re finished with middle school.  We’ll never have to put up with Mrs. Waterloo again!”

Amanda charged off into the unknown territory of high school and engaged upon the State-required “track” of a program centered around studies in psychology. Still domestically challenged,  she also expressed to me the fact that  “little kids freak me out”, but accepted that one of her required classes during her sophomore year would be Child Development.

Which, as we learned, was taught by none other than Mrs. Waterloo.

Who had transferred to the high school faculty.

I am happy to report that both Amanda and I survived.