Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Harris and Me - Gary Paulsen

Summary: A young city boy is sent to spend the summer on his aunt and uncle's farm. Though he has lived many places over the years, he has never experienced anything like farm life . . . and he has never met anyone like Harris, his daredevil of a cousin. If the two of them can survive wrestling three-hundred-pound pigs and mouse-hunting with toothless old Louie's fire-spitting pet lynx--which, unlike his master, has plenty of teeth--they just might make it through the summer! (Picture from Summary from Barnes and Noble .com)

My Review: This has to be my all time favorite Read Aloud book for my middle school students. It doesn't matter if they're 6th graders or 8th graders: I have not had one class that didn't beg me to read more.

Harris isn't the main character, although with all his hair-brained ideas you might think he was. Harris is the main character's cousin. You never hear the main characters name throughout the entire book. Because of this it can sometimes make explaining the story difficult.

The book draws you in immediately. The main character explains the predicament he's in: forced to stay with random relatives all around the country because his parents are 'puke drunks.' Typically this perks up my students' ears because they're not used to hearing teachers talk about dysfunctional households. His cousin Harris starts weaving his web of control--as much as any 9 year old can manage--by insisting that the main character sleep in one bed until Harris arbitrarily decides to switch. (Here I usually point out to my students that it's not typical to switch wet the bed?) There are lots of subtle moments like this that I enjoy discussing with my students and relating to their own lives.

Classic 'boy' moments abound. They get into all kinds of trouble. Some of my favorite parts include the blown-up frog (don't worry, this is in the first chapter of the book), anything to do with the horses the size of dinosaurs, and the electric wire fence. I won't ruin these events by telling you too much because the book is too enjoyable to spoil. If you've had a brother, known a young boy, or simply babysat a wild child of any gender, this book will remind you of their simple curiosity and insatiably fun spirit.

There are a few parts that can be hard to sift through. I don't know much about farm equipment and at times the descriptions of these machines go on too long. I almost lose my students in these sections, but thankfully it picks up quickly once the explanation is finished.

Another aspect that may be of concern to some parents is the use of cigarettes and some swearing. The main character does try to smoke one once when Harris asks him if he wants one. The nice part is his reaction--puking and realizing how gross it is. I try to remind kids of the time period in which the book is set--1950's. Smoking then wasn't viewed the same way it is today--unhealthy. The swearing I will honestly admit to not reading aloud. I replace the words with school acceptable language. I tell the kids it's in there, but if they want to read it, they will have to get the book for themselves.

That also brings me to another benefit of Harris and Me. It helps teach history. There are parts where the Second World War is talked about. I get to explain a little about farm living, how research has shown smoking to be unhealthy despite years of people thinking the opposite, how cars used to be fixed and re-fixed for years because people couldn't afford to buy a new one simply because the one they had wore out, etc.

Another aspect I favor is the transportation back in time. It feels like the book slows time. You're able to go back to the days when parents expected kids to play outside unattended all day long. Kids were allowed to experiment, even if it means breaking things once in a while, without serious punishment (not with drugs or alcohol: please don't be confused by the message of the book or what I'm trying to portray here). Strong family values, regular sit down--and together--meals are shared. Life, back when we didn't have all the technology we have today, was as simple and enjoyable as enjoying a fresh pie baked outside under a large oak tree. This book revives all that.

My Rating: 5+ Stars

If I had to sum this book up in one phrase: Laugh out loud funny. Total and utter fun with lots of teachable moments thrown in.

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