My quest is this: to find appropriate books for middle-school students that are fun and adventurous enough to keep them reading, while at the same time challenging enough to develop their reading skills and build their vocabularies.
A note to the sensitive and squeamish: I am not afraid of colorful language or a little violence, nor will I cater to censorship. One of the books I plan to review has been banned from one school's summer reading list. Today's book contains plenty of action and some violence.
True Grit by Charles Portis, Overlook TP, 2007, 256 pages, ISBN: 0316013684
In 1969 True Grit was a movie starring Marion Robert Morrison aka John Wayne. The Coen Brothers version, reputed to be truer to the book than the John Wayne movie, will star Jeff Bridges and be in theaters this Christmas. I'm looking forward to the Coen-Brothers movie, though I suspect it will earn an "R" rating, making it off limits for most middle-school students. For them there is the book. First published in 1968 by Simon & Schuster as one of their "books for young readers," True Grit features one of the gutsiest young people in all of literature.
Mattie Ross, fourteen years old, is on a mission to avenge her father's death. In her words, "a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces." Chaney has fled to Indian Territory, and Mattie aims to follow him and bring him back to Arkansas for hanging. She knows she'll need help, so she asks the sheriff, "Who is the best marshal?" Given the choice of three: a good tracker, a fair man, and a cruel man for whom "fear don't enter into his thinking," Mattie chooses the last. One-eyed Rooster Cogburn, Civil War veteran, gambler, heavy drinker, and former thief, he's the one Mattie determines has true grit enough for the task she's undertaking and hires him to lead her into Indian Territory to track down her father's killer.
Though Rooster is a gripping character, Mattie is the hero of the book. In her own words she is a girl "with brains and a frank tongue." Mattie rarely lets anyone get the best of her; one of the funniest episodes in the book is when Mattie outplays Stonehill, the owner of the stable where her father's horse had been kept and from where it had been stolen by Chaney. She holds Stonehill responsible and extracts $325 from him for the horse. Mattie Ross is the anti-Laura Ingalls, that other girl of children's literature who spends time in Indian Territory in Little House on the Prairie. Whereas Laura is childish, dependent, and at the mercy of her father's whims, Mattie is capable, independent, and in charge of her own destiny. My eighth-grade son wrote in his reader response to this book, "A girl that can shoot and kill people and shake it off is a tough customer." In short, Mattie's got true grit.