The Bookworm: Drama – Real-life and stage

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“Year of the Jungle”

By Suzanne Collins

c. 2013, Scholastic

$17.99/$19.99 Canada

40 pages

All day long, while you’re at school, you really miss your parents.

But that’s okay. You know you’ll see them in a few hours or a few days and it’ll be fun. You’ll get hugs and give kisses, make dinner together, and read stories.

But some kids, though, they have to wait to see their mom or fad, and it might be a long time. In “Year of the Jungle” by Suzanne Collins, illustrated by James Proimos, you’ll see why.

Suzy, who was the youngest in her family, loved when her dad read poems to her. She particularly liked the ones about a dragon because he was ‘the bravest of all.” The dragon was special, and so was everybody in Suzy’s family.

But Suzy’s daddy had to go away for awhile. She knew he was going to a place called Vietnam , and someone said he’d be “in the jungle.” That reminded her of her favorite TV cartoon, which was about a jungle man who swings from a rope.

Her dad would be gone for a year. That seemed like a long time.

While he was gone, Suzy’s dad sent lots of postcards. He missed her first day of first grade. He wasn’t there to read the paper to her, or poems. He wasn’t around for Halloween or Thanksgiving, but he sent a Vietnamese lady doll home for Suzy’s Christmas present.

Suzy tried hard not to worry, even though grown-ups acted weird when they found out where her father was. She tried not to think about her dad in the jungle, until she got a birthday card from him and it was nowhere near her birthday. It was hard not to think about him after she saw a TV news report with explosions and hurt soldiers.

That made her cry.

It was a long year, but then her dad came home just that quick!

He wasn’t quite the Daddy that Suzy remembered. He looked tired, he was awfully thin, and sometimes, he looked like he was thinking about the jungle.

He came home with gifts, but the best gift of all was having him home.

I really liked this book, but I struggled to determine its audience.

“Year of the Jungle” will be way better understood by grandparents than by children: Author Suzanne Collins’ tale, for instance, touches upon pop-culture things that would resonate with people who were kids during the Vietnam War. Yes, today’s children know all about war and parents going away to fight one, but will they understand this story?

I think so.

Collins based her book on her own childhood recollections, and her memories of loss, worry, and confusion are wisely innocent and timeless without being too scary. Illustrations by James Proimos help maintain that lack of frightfulness.

Overall, this is a grown-up-kids book that I think may actually be comforting to children whose parents are in the military because it assures them that “most people come back.” And for that, “Year of the Jungle” is one that neither of you should miss.

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“Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theatre”

By Michael Sokolove

c. 2013, Riverhead Books

$27.95/$29.50 Canada

352 pages

Sometimes, you just don’t feel like yourself. Lately, for instance, you’ve been acting differently and people have noticed. You wear outfits you wouldn’t normally wear and you say the oddest things. It’s almost like you’re possessed by another person.

Such is the life of an actor in a play: To do it right, to convince an audience, you have to become someone you’re not. You know the pressure can be enormous, so read “Drama High” by Michael Sokolove, then imagine performing with New York theatre executives in the audience.

Like most schools, Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania , had its budget slashed last year. Gone are extravagances, extracurriculars, and extraneous activities. But teacher Lou Volpe’s theatre classes survived the cuts, just like they had for some 40 years.

Volpe hadn’t intended on becoming Truman High’s drama teacher; in fact, before he was hired, he’d had zero experience with theatre. None at all. But, as he did many other times (and like many other teachers), he threw himself into making Truman’s students into a first-class troupe.

Michael Sokolove, one of Volpe’s students back in the 1970s, remembered the way Volpe had of finding one special, latent talent that each of his students had, and highlighting it. Volpe urged his students, stood up for them, supported them, and expanded their horizons, making them want more from life. Sokolove remembered spaghetti suppers at Volpe’s house, and never wanting to disappoint his teacher.

But he also remembered the town in which Truman High sat. Once a subdivision of the future, Levittown was the kind of place people moved away from, and hard times only made it worse.

Still, Volpe and his drama students made their school proud through first-class, competition-winning, Broadway-quality plays but not of the Arsenic and Old Lace ilk. No, Volpe liked to push his students to the edge of their comfort zones, asking them to sing and act in ways they didn’t think they could, making them become people they didn’t think they’d ever be both personally, and on-stage.

And in doing so, Volpe changed their lives.

Like any good actor, “Drama High” plays several roles.

For adults, it’s definitely a book of nostalgia. Like many people, author Michael Sokolove moved away from Levittown , and his trip back is filled with wistfulness and eagerness to see how time alters old memories.

For students especially those who are struggling or who harbor a secret love of theatre and for their parents, Volpe’s story offers strength and an urge to commit to ones’ heart. His students spurned sports in favor of stage and in turn, he supported their dreams and nurtured their talents. Some of his former students, in fact, have become Emmy winners, entertainment executives, and Broadway actors.

Despite that it occasionally shows a tone of despair, it’s hard not to cheer when you’ve got this story in your hands. I loved it, and I think that if you’re a Broadway fan, an actor, or a parent of either, you’ll sing the praises of “Drama High,” too.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

© 2013 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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