Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Frank, Lucy. The Homeschool Liberation League. 2009. 279 pages. ISBN 13: 978-0-8037-3230-8. This book is appropriate for grades 5 to 8, or ages 10 to 13, depending on reading level. (3 1/2 stars out of 4)

At some point in almost every middler’s life, he or she wants to be free. That freedom may revolve around parents who restrict their actions too much, schools or teachers who do not allow enough free thought or expression, or friends who do not allow enough individuality into their peer groups. Freedom is a fleeting and oversimplified concept to the young teen, as we adults know from our lifelong but often brief relationship with it. However, freedom is a powerful concept and goal, and it lights the path to our dreams as we imagine how we can get to do the things we want to do and avoid the things we do not want to do; i.e. how can I have English and Social Studies all day and not have to bother with those stinky math and science classes, because when I am an adult, I will not need them anyway (so I mistakenly thought all throughout school). But teachers know that all subjects are important, not necessarily for content, but for what the process teaches our brains, and frankly, 13-year-olds do not normally appreciate that type of long-term intellectual investment. Therefore, when I first started reading The Homeschool Liberation League by Lucy Frank, I was concerned for the main character, Katya, because I could see her mistake in thinking that freedom, and not learning, is the goal of education. We know that learning enables freedom, but Katya must learn her own lessons; fortunately, she does so both humorously and with some style.

On her way to her first day in eighth grade at Martin Van Buren Middle School, Kaitlyn Antonucci decides she cannot stay and goes home. Evidently, Kaity, who wants to be called Katya after her Russian camp counselor named her that last summer, has decided that she wants to be homeschooled. As Katya begins a journal as a method to justify her decision (Look! I did more writing on my own that I ever did at school; can’t I just stay home?), she ponders seventh grade in which she hid a lot of trouble from her parents: “I wondered if I dared put in something about my ‘bad attitude’ at school, my ‘acting out behavior.’ Explain how it was kind of hard to stop when so many kids liked me so much better that way. Admit that I was worried I’d get so good at acting dumb and stupid, it would no longer be an act” (14). Neither of Katya’s parents are college graduates, but they are receptive to her pleas and decide to go see the principal, Mr. Westenburg. Surprisingly, Mr. and Mrs. Antonucci start to understand Katya’s points, and they arrange to start homeschooling, with Katya helping at her mom’s salon in-between “classes.” Everything becomes complicated, however, when Katya’s mom gets serious about home schooling and Katya starts to feel the same restrictions she felt at Martin Van Buren Middle School. Additionally, life gets very interesting after Katya meets Milo, a sulky but very cute 14-year-old. Milo is also homeschooling but wants to return to school because of the rigors being a young, accomplished violinist with endless practicing and plenty of pressure/encouragement from his father. To explain her tenuous and often uncomfortable situation to her friends, Katya concocts a group to which she, Milo, and other homeschoolers now belong, the fictional Homeschool Liberation League. Through all of the problems and untruths Katya has woven around her life, she and Milo must find a way to pursue their dreams and be happy with their lives before they are separated from the things they love and forced to play by the rules that seemed to chain them to an unhappy life and bleak future.

I am always leery of a book in which the main character sulks and sulks until she finally gets what she wants, so it is refreshing when Katya must actually work for a living like the rest of us. Katya could have been an annoying, whiny character who is clever enough to fool the world, but that would have made her boring and predictable. Instead, she is a funny, resourceful, and occasionally curmudgeonly but charming young woman who is looking for herself but not seeing an appropriate model in any of the other archetypes at school or home. Katya lies often, but they are the kind of lies that the liar always thinks are more damaging than they are, and because she has a conscience, Katya always reminds us that she knows when she is wrong. Also, part of Katya’s charm is the way she ironically learns life’s lessons; i.e. her work with the elderly reminds her of her youth; meeting a boy helps her to meet herself but not lose herself; being forced to do uncomfortable things like work at Mom’s beauty shop helps her to see that comfort is not necessarily the goal, etc. I enjoyed The Homeschool Liberation League by Lucy Frank and I believe it is a great selection for the 5th and 6th grade crowd who like books with a humorous narrator like No Talking by Andrew Clements, Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis and Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko.

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