Pages and Presents

Someone who likes traveling and reading is extremely easy to buy a present for. There are tons of great books for travelers whether they are hikers, Francophiles, adventurers, or single females. That last category is getting more and more crowded due to Elizabeth Gilbert’s commercial success.  

My brother (who would definitely NOT appreciate “Eat, Pray, Love”) is a hiker and also a writer. As his sister, I’ve decided that he should read more. So I went out and purchased Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” as his Christmas present. Hopefully Jay won’t read this blog between now and December 25th.   

But it’s too easy to just buy someone a book, wrap it up, and call it good. So I’m giving Jay additional presents to open while reading. Naturally, each present corresponds to some section in the book. This also:            

a)      Ensures that he actually reads the book – sneaky, huh?

b)      Provides me a reason to read the book before giving it to Jay. So not only is he getting a present that I actually want for myself, but now he’s getting it secondhand. I’m a great sister.

Come Christmas, here is what my brother will receive along with his very own used copy of Bill Bryson’s book:

  • After the author decides to hike the Appalachian Trail, he spends the first 23 pages worrying about bears. He writes about past bear attacks in an increasingly panicked fashion. He particularly notes that bears like Snickers bars. When Bryson’s friend comes to join him for the hike, the friend (unbeknownst to the bear danger) brings a backpack full of Snickers bars. Jay’s first present is, of course, a Snickers bar.
  • After Jay reads the following passage on page 96, he will be rewarded with sticky rat traps. In the book, Bryson and his friend Katz find themselves spending the night in a rodent infested shelter:

I turned on my headlamp to find a packmouse on top of my sleeping bag…not six inches from my chin, sitting up on its haunches and regarding me with a gimlet eye. Reflexively, I hit the bag from inside, flipping him into a startled oblivion. 

“Got one!” cried Katz.

“Me too,” I said, rather proudly.

  • By page 144, the book has returned to Bryson’s bear phobia. It’s the middle of the night and Bryson fears that there is a bear outside. Upon conferring with Katz (who is decidedly less hysterical about possible bear proximity), it is discovered that the sharpest instrument they have to slay bears with is…toenail clippers. Naturally, this is Jay’s next present. If I was a good sister, I would have bought bear spray for my brother instead. But bear spray is $40, so I decided to pass. If my brother ever does get mauled to death by a bear, I will feel very bad. Maybe I’ll buy him bear spray for his next birthday.
  • Jay’s next present (to be opened at page 185) is a $10 donation to Earth Justice, an organization that is working to stop some types of coal mining. Check out their website, wherein you can download the donation form. I’m giving Jay the form and a ten dollar bill, so technically he can decide what to do with it. However, he will have just read Bryson’s description of the town of Centralia. This eastern Pennsylvania town had to be evacuated in the early ’80’s because of the coal fire raging just under the town’s surface.

In 1981, a twelve-year-old boy was playing in his grandmother’s backyard when a plume of smoke appeared in front of him. As he stared at it, the ground suddenly opened around him. He clung to tree roots until someone heard his calls and hauled him out. The hole was found to be eighty feet deep. Within days, similar cave-ins were appearing all over town. It was about then that people started getting serious about the fire.   

  • Crazy, huh? Jay’s last present will be a body warmer, which he will be instructed to open on page 220, after reading about Bryson’s various descriptions of hypothermia.

I decided not to get Jay a final present upon completing the entire book, but an airline ticket to Great Smoky Mountain National Park would be appropriate, as would an “America the Beautiful Pass,” which is a yearly pass guaranteeing free admission to all the National Parks he may want to visit.

Please feel free to copy my idea as you are Christmas shopping for your own brothers, family members, and friends. But even if you don’t come up with a whole slew of presents to give alongside the book, any reader on your list that even mildly likes to hike will enjoy Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.”

Please know that this post contains affiliate links. Purchasing books or bear spray via the links in this post will earn me a bit of money – so thanks!

China Books

There’s nothing better than geographically appropriate reading (says the geography teacher). If I’m in northeastern Arizona, I’ll be reading  Tony Hillerman. I devoured the “Merchant of Venice” along with overpriced pasta while in the sinking city, and “Snow Falling on Cedars” will always be my favorite book set in the northwest coast of Washington state (sorry “Twilight“). Geographic reading even happened to me accidently as I was reading “Cry, the Beloved Country” in Norway. It turns out that author Alan Paton finished his manuscript while in Trondheim. The preface discusses the stained glass rose adorning the Nidaros cathedral – a church I walked past on my way to school each snowy morning.

My picks for China:

The must-read classic is, of course, “The Good Earth” by Pearl Buck. I read the book in high school and all I remembered is that there was a character that twirled the hairs coming out of his mole and that I hated it. I didn’t hate it quite as much this time around. I’ve been pulling the book out whenever I feel sorry for myself that I’m sleeping on wood planks and eating fish with their teeth still intact. Things don’t seem quite so bad after reading about how O-lan silently gives birth and then picks up a rake that afternoon, telling her husband about her labor and the birth of their baby girl:

 “It is over once more. It is only a slave this time – not worth mentioning.”

I how the end of the book foreshadows the beginning of China’s transformation:

 “It is the end of a family – when they begin to sell the land…out of the land we came and into it we must go – and if you will hold our land you can live – no one can rob you of your land.”

The NPR lover in me gravitated to Rob Gifford’s “China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power,” in which the author takes route 312 (“The Chinese Route 66”) from Shanghai to Kazakhstan. This book is awesome because of all the people Gifford meets along his journey – whether it’s AIDS patients, abortion-forcing nurses, Amway salesmen, or the Hermit of Hua Shan (you can reach him on his cell phone), it’s Gifford’s interviews with people that tell the story. Gifford goes back and forth on the topic of whether China will overtake the world or not, but I agree with Chinese artist Su Zhongqui:

 “We’re not producing any creative people. We are making only technicians…The government wants advanced education without encouraging people to think”

And Gifford’s thoughts on the matter:

“the government has bought off many people with economic development…but what happens if the anesthetic of prosperity wears off…how can you become a Great Power…if you don’t allow your people to think?”

The incredibly popular Lisa See is who I turned to get my historical novel, “Shanghai Girls.” It wasn’t as good as the three pages of accolades claim it to be, but I did enjoy the novel. The first few chapters (set in Shanghai on the eve of WWII) read like See is trying to prove that she did her homework. I like details and historical accuracy as much as the next teacher, but it read like she was trying a tad too hard. But by the middle of the book, once she got into the story, I was fully immersed. This is more a story on the  immigrant experience of Chinese Americans than Shanghai though. Still, I plan on picking up the sequel, “Dreams of Joy,” when I can find a bookstore. Which will hopefully be soon because I’m all out of reading material. Tragedy! Why oh why didn’t I buy a Kindle?


A couple other China related books worth noting are Peter Hessler’s “River Town” and J. Maarten Troost’s “Lost on Planet China.”


I read “River Town” last time I was in China. It’s an account of Hessler’s two year stint teaching in a town along the Yangtze that was slated to be flooded due to the Three Gorges Dam. I especially remember a scene in which he compliments one of his students on her cute freckles. Unfortunately for both Hessler and the student, this is culturally tantamount to complimenting someone on their zits. This helped me fully appreciate the labels on Chinese facial cream, some titled “Anti-Speckle Cream,” or “Anti-Freckle Cream.”

Troost is still very funny, but “Lost on Plant China” is the weakest of his three books. I’d pick up his Pacific Island tale “The Sex lives of Canibals” instead and get ready to enjoy the part wherein he buys a fish from the market only to use it as a weapon fending off the island’s rabid dog population. Hilarious.

Happy travel reading! I’m heading to Wisconsin and Florida next  – if you have any recommendations I’d be grateful.  

This post contains affiliate links to Purchasing these books by clicking on the links in this blog earns me a little bit of money. Thank you!

Travel Inspired Picture Books

A new middle school student enjoys his or her own locker, an in-depth exploration of subjects, and the freedom that comes with switching classes every hour. But one vestige of elementary school should never be abandoned – the picture book read aloud. The best children’s literature not only teaches, but captivates audiences of every age. When I read aloud, my 8th grade students edge close, even wanting to be on the floor. The guys rest their chins on their tattooed forearms and stare up at the pictures, not even bothering to feign disinterest.  

As a World Geography teacher, one of my obvious favorites is Uri Shulevitz’s “How I Learned Geography.” In this biographical tale, Uri recounts (in less then 20 words) how his family fled Poland during WWII. Then the story starts. Instead of buying the expected bread, Uri’s dad buys a map. Initial anger brought on by an empty stomach relaxes into wonder as the map floods the room with color and Uri’s mind with possibilities. The rest of the book is filled with Shulevitz’s illustrations of the snowy mountaintops and teeming cities he imagined as a child.

After I read this to my students, I reinforce the lesson by asking them to brainstorm examples of the deserts, beaches, mountains, jungles, and cities that Uri fantasized about in his book. Then each group designs a customized trip around the world that Uri might have enjoyed. A biographical map of Shulevitz’s own life also provides fodder for discussions, as he fled Poland in 1939 to live in modern day Kazakhstan, Paris, Israel and then the USA.

Another favorite is Carmen Agra Deedy’s “14 Cows for America,” gorgeously illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez. It’s a story about the Maasai people of Kenya. My students, like most of us, are used to hearing negative stories about Africa. They see poverty stricken children on TV. They hear about wars and genocide and AIDS.  My African-American students want nothing to do with Africa, viewing it as a continent of mud huts and shame.      

Then we read “14 Cows for America.”

In this true story Kimeli returns to Kenya and tells his people about his time in America. He tells them about New York, he tells them about that one September day. The Maasai people are horrified into silence when they hear Kimeli’s tale. Then they spring into action, determined to help right the injustice, determined to ease the suffering of these poor people who live in America. The Maasai give up what is most precious to them – the cow. The Maasai donate fourteen cows to the USA, “because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort.”

I love that Ms. Agra Deedy automatically knew that my kids were brilliant readers!

For further suggestions on great books and ways to use them in the classroom, check out “Every Book is a Social Studies Book,” by Andrea Libresco. This one is a true gem, complete with lesson plans and ready-to-use handouts for students.

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