Monday, December 31, 2007

Looking Back – My favorite reads of 2007

First, I must have a qualifier. These are my personal favorite books that I read this year. Many of these books were published before 2007 but I read them this year. I don’t pretend to be a great literary analyst, but I know when I like a book and it doesn’t have to be a work of great literature for me to enjoy it.

The rundown for my reading in 2007 is as follows (I didn’t start keeping a list until February 18, so I have no idea what/how much I read before then):

125 books total. Broken down that is:

85 children’s and young adult fiction books
14 children’s and young adult nonfiction books
22 adult fiction books
4 adult nonfiction books

Here are my personal favorites that I read this year:

Children’s & Young Adult Fiction

Life as We Knew It (Susan Beth Pfeffer) – this was one of those books that had me thinking for days – how would I react to the same situation – could my family survive? It made me long for a wood stove.

Just Listen (Sarah Dessen) – I love Dessen’s books and this may be my personal favorite. A tough topic (acquaintance rape) that she handled beautifully.

Golden (Cameron Dokey) – This book make me want to read other novels that are based on fairy tales – I loved it.

Rules of Survival (Nancy Werlin) – I love teenage problem novels and this one was handled incredibly. This book made me rethink the issue of child abuse.

Sisters Grimm series (Michael Buckley) – One of my faults as a middle school librarian is that I lean towards reading more books appropriate for 8th graders than 6th graders. I couldn’t get enough of these books. They were a blast to read and I’m getting ready to run by the bookstore for the fifth book. I’d recommend them to anyone who loves A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Such a Pretty Girl (Laura Weiss) – My favorite problem novel of the year and hands down, the best first line: “They promised me nine years but only gave me three. Today my time has run out.” A chilling book about what to do when your father is a molester and your mother doesn’t believe you.

Elsewhere (Gabrielle Zevin) – A different view about life after death. I loved this book. I loved the concept. It too was a book that made me think about how I would handle things if I were the main character.

Lightning Thief (Rick Riordan) – I had heard much about this book (and the series) but didn’t read it until this summer. It’s pure fun to read and an instant success as a booktalk.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling) – I cannot begin to relate the excitement in my family (and my extended family) the week before this book came out. We were all on vacation and copies of the first six books floated around as people fiercely debated what was going to happen. It didn’t disappoint and will remain one my favorite reads ever.

Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi (David Chotjewitz) – I’ve read a lot of Holocaust fiction, but this one hit an area I’d never read about – young boys campaigning for the Nazis to win and what happens when one finds out that his heritage isn’t as “pure” as he thought. The ending blew me away.

Wednesday Wars (Gary Schmidt) – I would never have picked up this book had it not been for the rave reviews of it on so many blogs. I loved, loved, loved it – it is one of my personal picks for the Newbery.

Looking for Alaska (John Green) – I’m not exactly sure why I picked up this book. It doesn’t come anywhere close to being appropriate for middle school. I really glad I read it, though. It reminded me of the coming of age stories I had to read for English when I was high school, but much better.

Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature (Robin Brande) – Yet another novel I discovered thanks to the blogs I read daily. I loved the characters in this story, and coming from a conservative part of the country, I could certainly relate to the controversy.

Deadline (Chris Crutcher) – The first thing I could think of was “Boy, would I kill my kid if he were dying and didn’t have the decency to warn me” – but who could deny someone the right to live his last year of life on his own terms?

Thirteen Reasons Why (Jay Asher) – Teen book groups should be using this book as a discussion book. I've loaned to a couple of teenagers and we have had interesting conversations as a result. I honestly don't think many teenagers have any idea about how easily some people are wounded by the words and actions of others and Asher's book does a great job of showing it.

Book of a Thousand Days (Shannon Hale) – It would have been impossible to read the number of blogs I read each day and not come across seemingly hundreds of glowing reviews for this book. I agree – it’s wonderful – and it should be a contender for the Newbery.

Adult Fiction

World Without End (Ken Follett) – I thought it would take five days or so to read this book – it took me two and I ignored everyone and everything until I finished it. I love good historical fiction (especially set in England) and this certainly didn’t disappoint.

The Secret Servant (Daniel Silva) – Daniel Silva is my favorite writer of thrillers, and I ate this one up in one afternoon.

Rituals of the Season (Margaret Maron) – Her Deborah Knott books are set in North Carolina (in the county next to where my parents grew up). The mysteries aren’t that hard to figure out, but I love the characters – they are so much like my cousins that I smile when reading about them.

And the Shofar Blue (Francine Rivers) – I read several Christian fiction titles this year and this was my favorite. Rivers does an excellent job of portraying how turning away from God will ultimately lead to personal destruction.

Adult Nonfiction

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Barbara Kingsolver) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Michael Pollan) – I dare anyone to read these two books and not change their views about what they eat and where it comes from.

Tomorrow I’ll post my reading goals for 2008.

This is What I Did by Ann Dee Ellis

"A year ago I was fine. That’s when nothing was wrong." But now Logan is in the eighth grade and his entire life has changed. Something has happened involving his best friend Zyler and it has traumatized him deeply. His family has moved to a new neighborhood in order to give him a fresh start but it doesn’t help because his mother made the mistake of confiding in a neighbor and the rumors of what happened get way out of proportion. Logan insists that he is fine, but he isn’t. He has lost his ability to interact with the world and is unable to defend himself against the horrible bullying going on at school and at Scouts. Until he is able to face the traumatic thing he witnessed and the fact that he did nothing to stop it, he will not be able to move on with his life – the shame and guilt will just smother him.

This is a remarkable story. Ellis’ portrayal of Logan as a traumatized boy unable to move on with his life is really well-written. In many ways Logan reminded me of Miranda from Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak in his inability to communicate his feelings. He has lost his capacity for strong emotions – he speaks in flat statements: “I’m fine.” "I have a family that is good.” “ Sometimes I have to be in charge because Mom and Dad go on dates a lot.” I wanted to reach into the book, put my arms around him, and tell him that he wasn’t a horrible kid, that he was going make it.

Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

Miri lives in the remote villiage of Mount Eskel where everyone lives by mining linder stone from the mountain. Everyone, that is, except Miri, whose father has forbidden her from ever entering the mines. It is a difficult life, but one in which the village people are content. But one day soldiers arrive and say they are taking all of the girls between the ages of 12 and 17. The priests at the capital have determined that the future wife of the prince will come from Mount Eskel and all of his potential mates must be trained in how to be a princess. These girls are taken away from their village and placed in an old minister’s house near the mountain pass to their village. This “princess academy” will allow the prince to choice a well-trained princess for his wife.

Life at the academy is not easy. The woman in charge of training them, Olana, is harsh and the girls have a difficult time adjusting to learning to read and curtsy and all of the other skills a princess must know (my favorite was Conversation). They are also homesick, going for the first many months without seeing their families. But they do learn and they use their talents to negotiate for better conditions at the academy.

From the beginning, Miri is one of the strongest members at that academy. Because she’s the only one to not work in the mines, she is the outcast. She’s also outspoken, and that gets both her and the other girls in trouble. But when danger strikes, Miri is the one who is tough enough to save them all.

I really enjoyed Princess Academy. It’s the third Shannon Hale book I’ve read during Christmas break. Like Book of a Thousand Days, it features a strong female protagonist who has to learn to get by in a completely foreign (and mostly hostile) environment.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Side Effects by Amy Goldman Koss

Izzy Miller is your normal fifteen year-old, until she discovers swollen glands on her throat. After a visit to the doctor, she is sent to the hospital for x-rays. She’s not worried about anything being really wrong with her until the doctor calls and says she has to go to Children’s Hospital right away. Izzy has lymphoma and with those words her life changes.

Once at the hospital, things happen frighteningly fast. Amy Koss does a wonderful job portraying the confusion both Izzy and her parents feel as information and test results are thrown at them. Although she is fifteen and by most accounts a young adult, this is just too much for her to take in. The only decision she gets to make is whether or not to get a PICC line, and I’m not sure that was truly an informed decision. As time goes by, she gets chemotherapy treatments and goes through all of the side effects that hit chemotherapy patients.

For the past nine months, I’ve been tutoring a young girl with cancer, and I approached this book with some trepidation. Would Izzy’s experiences feel too close after seeing my student under many months of truly grueling chemotherapy? Because I had a real-life person to compare Izzy’s experiences to, I can say that Koss was spot-on in what going through chemotherapy is like. The mouth sores (and now I understand why mouth sores are so common), the hair loss, the nausea, the failure of the anti-nausea medications – all of these were experienced by my student in the past few months.

There is so much that is good to this book. The only thing I can think of that might seem negative is that the ending seemed rushed, and yet if Koss had extended it, what could she have added? The routine of going to the hospital to get chemotherapy, feeling awful for days, and finally getting to feel better just before the next round of chemotherapy is due is just that – routine. The book could have easily gotten boring if Koss had gone on and on with Izzy’s treatment.

I also like the fact that there is no doubt that Izzy is going to survive her cancer (the cover blurb says so). This isn’t one of the millions of books in which the teenage character fights valiantly and then looses the battle with cancer – this is a book in which something bad happens to someone and she learns how to handle it and work through it. For those thousands of children diagnosed with cancer who go through the hell of treatments and come away cured, this book is perfect.

When I was young, I loved the book Something for Joey, the story of John Cappelletti’s brother Joey who died of leukemia. As I recall, there was never much hope that Joey could survive his cancer. Fortunately, today cancer is often cured and we need to recognize and celebrate the advances that have been made. Side Effects does that.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

I’m not going to say much about Hugo – I think this is one of the books which I’m the last person on the planet to read and review. I found it to be an interesting concept – not a novel that stands on its own but not a graphic novel either, although like a graphic novel the pictures and the words work together to tell the entire story.

Sometimes the story itself demands the format in which it is told. To tell the story of someone who showed the limitless ability of film to follow the imagination, Selznick uses both words, beautiful drawings, and stills from the films of Georges Méliès. The result is a wonderful book that could be explored for hours. My nephew received this book for Christmas and his first statement about it was “Wow! This is a great book!” It was his copy that I borrowed to read.

I do understand the dilemma as to whether or not this book qualifies for the Newbery, and I must agree with those who feel that it doesn’t because the pictures are such an integral part of the story that without them, too much is lost. And while I have nothing against the author’s writing style, there are many other books that have been published this year that are better written.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Three Keepers

It’s difficult to write reviews of books that I read more than a week ago, but I’ll do my best. Although the reviews are short, I recommend each of these books. I’ll start with my favorite:

Book of a Thousand Days
by Shannon Hale

My goodness did I love this book. I had read many reviews of it and was eagerly awaiting its arrival in my book shipment. It’s the first Shannon Hale book I have read and now I plan to go back and read the rest. The story is based on one of the Grimm Brothers' Fairy Tales and is the story of a young maid, Dashti, who has promised to follow her mistress, Saren, wherever she may go. Saren’s father wants her to marry a man that Saren doesn’t love and is deathly afraid of. In anger her father places her and Dashti in a tower, promising to leave them there for seven years. When the man that Saren is in love with (but has never met – she’s only exchanged letters with him) shows up at the tower, Saren gets Dashti to pretend to be her. Of course, Dashti falls in love with the prince, but then he leaves and doesn’t return. As their store of food dwindles, Dashti begins to search for a means to escape with her mistress.

There is so much to love about this book. It is beautifully written and has a true timeless quality. While one cannot help but love Dashti, I also loved the portrayal of Saren. I think that many authors would have portrayed Saren as a selfish rich girl but instead Hale chooses Saren to be a frightened girl who at times is self-centered (aren’t we all?). Saren apparently has a learning disability – she is unable to read and she relies on Dashti to make many decisions but Hale doesn’t make a big deal about it – these are just characteristics of who Saren is. This book is one to share with as many people as possible.

Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf by Jennifer L. Holm

The subtitle of this book is “A Year Told Through Stuff.” At first glance, it looks quick read. While it was a quick read, and sections of it are cute, it is a much like a cute, deeper book than I expected.

Ginny Davis is starting seventh grade. She has a to-do list, starting with “Get a dad” and including such items as “get the role of the Sugarplum Fairy in the Nutcracker” and “Do something in with hair to make nose look smaller.” As the year goes on, she gets the new dad (and finds out that it’s harder to get a new dad than she thought), doesn’t get to be the Sugarplum Fairy, and watches her older brother get in more and more trouble, finally being sent away to military school.

This is going to be a popular book at my school. My sixth grade daughter has already read it and gives it a thumbs up.

devilish by Maureen Johnson

Jane Jarvis and Allison Concord are seniors at an exclusive Catholic girls’ school. Neither have been popular, but they are surviving the high school experience until the day that the freshmen and new students choose seniors to be their Big Sister for the year. Allison suddenly and inexplicably gets violently ill, vomiting on one unfortunate freshmen. A new sophomore girl does feel sorry for her and volunteers to be her Little Sister. Then Allison begins to change. She is no longer timid but is now sophisticated and comfortable speaking out in class. Eventually Jane learns that Allison has sold her soul to a demon in order to become popular. Jane has one chance to save Allison, but the cost may be her soul as well.

I enjoyed this one, but not as much as the previous two books. I will recommend it to my eighth graders who enjoy high school stories.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


My favorite day of the school year has arrived (actually it arrived this past Friday).  My book shipment with this year's new books came in.  I now have about 200 books on my to-read pile (that in addition to the 30 or so on my shelf downstairs).   I've already read three of the books and I loved two of them and liked one of them.  My problem?  Having time to write decent reviews at Christmastime when I don't even have one present wrapped.  Hopefully I can make time over the next week or so to get them done.  So that I won't get too far behind, I've started Ken Follett's new book, World Without End -- that should take several days to read.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

Tyler has gone from being an ignored geek to a juvenile delinquent on probation. His crime? Spray-painting the high school and getting caught. His father, not the best under any circumstances, treats him with disdain and the high school principal is just itching to find an excuse to kick him out of school permanently.

When his family goes to a party hosted by his father’s boss, nothing good happens. The climax to a horrible evening is Tyler getting pushed into a waiter who was carrying a tray of champagne glasses. The glasses go everywhere and the boss’s daughter, Bethany, a girl so beautiful that Tyler speaks incoherently whenever he is around her, cuts her feet badly enough to require stitches. While embarrassing, this event gets Tyler noticed by Bethany. One thing leads to another and Tyler ends up at a party with a very drunken Bethany who wants to do more than kiss him. Tyler, however, makes the right decision and leaves the room. He also makes sure that Bethany gets home safely. It’s only later that he finds out that someone has taken compromising pictures of Bethany while she was passed out and published them on the internet. Who’s everyone’s first suspect? Tyler, of course.

When I first started Twisted, I didn’t think I’d be able to finish it. It’s not that it wasn’t good – it’s just that the pain everyone was feeling was so palpable that it hurt. Once I got through the beginning, I didn’t want to put it down. I usually don’t read much from Thanksgiving until Christmas because I have so many other things to do, but last night nothing else got done – no cards, no cooking, no present wrapping. I was just consumed with finding out what happened. While I didn’t like this book as well as Speak, I felt Anderson did a fine job of portraying Tyler and his family. I am looking forward to reading her next book.

Walt Disney's Cinderella by Cynthia Rylant

Most children have grown up hearing fairy tales. As a middle school librarian there are certain tales that I assume my students will be familiar with. This year, when doing a lesson on fairy tale retellings, I was amazed at the number of students who didn’t know the story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. One story, however that it is still safe to assume that children know is that of Cinderella. Although there have been several excellent novelizations of this story (such as Ella Enchanted), Cinderella has never really been a story that captured my imagination. Give me Beauty and the Beast any day.

Enter my obsession with reading blogs. I read reviews of Walt Disney’s Cinderella on two different blogs: A Year of Reading and Becky’s Book Reviews. Normally, I wouldn’t have given this book a chance – after all we are all familiar with the movie. But these reviews were just so enthusiastic that I couldn’t resist going to the bookstore and looking at it. I came out of the bookstore with book in hand and have been showing it (and reading it aloud) to teachers ever since. I’ve had teachers struggle not to cry while listening to it, and several teachers are working on ways to share it with their classes.

What makes it so special? Quite simply, the language is spectacular. Rylant has written a story that makes your heart ache for Cinderella, even though you know how the story is going to end.

Even the wicked stepmother and stepsisters are written in a fashion that you understand the blackness in their hearts: “Like the roses, which did not bloom across their doorways, Love itself did not ever linger.”

Some other wonderful quotes:

“Who can say by what mystery two people find each other in this great wide world?”

“How does a young man find his maiden? His heart leads him. He finds her in a room. He asks her to dance. And when he touches her, he knows.”

There are many, many other passages I could have included. This may very well be my favorite book of the year – it’s certainly in the top five. It would make both a wonderful gift for anyone who loves incredible writing and a wonderful book to use in the classroom.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Invisible Detective: Double Life by Justin Richards

The Invisible Detective is the guise of 14 year-old Art who, along with several friends, solves minor mysteries around his neighborhood. Their newest mystery is that of disappearing people and a bizarre exhibition of mechanical puppets. This mystery is not minor – indeed Art and his gang find themselves in serious danger as they try to figure out what has happened to the people who have disappeared.

In the present day, Arthur Drake has found the casebook of the Invisible Detective. The handwriting looks like his own, though the Invisible Detective lived in the 1930’s and there is no way that it can be he who wrote it.

I was really excited to get the Invisible Detective books – the covers are wonderful and I thought I’d be enthralled with them. Unfortunately, I found the cover of Double Life to be the best thing about it. Except for the cover it didn’t seem firmly set in its time frame – I think it would have been better written as a Victorian mystery. I also had a difficult time with jumps back and forth in time. I didn’t really feel that that the present-day storyline was necessary; instead it caused the book to be choppy.

Last week one of my students returned the book House of Stairs. Since I had recommended the book to her, I was curious to find out what she thought of it. Her reply – “It just didn’t hold my interest” – was frustrating. She couldn’t tell me exactly what she didn’t like about it, just that she didn’t enjoy it. That’s how I felt about Double Life.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Peak by Roland Smith

Peak Marcello is a good kid, but he doesn’t always make the best decisions in the world. Case in point: he decides to climb outside of the Woolworth Building in New York City. He gets caught (naturally) and placed in the juvenile detention center to await trial. While he’s there, another teenager decides to be a copycat, tries to climb the Flatiron Building, and dies when he falls seventy-five feet. The authorities want to make an example out of him, and that means Peak could spend the next three years in jail. Fortunately for him, there’s another choice. Peak’s father is a famous climber currently living in Thailand, and he offers to take Peak with him to live until the publicity dies down.

What Peak (and his mother) don’t realize is that his father has an ulterior motive. His expedition business is in jeopardy of failing, but if he can get a fourteen-year old boy up the summit of Mt. Everest, then the publicity gained would allow the business to survive, even thrive. The hitch? Climbing Mt. Everest is extremely dangerous for an adult, not to mention a 14 year-old boy. Peak has to acclimate and be ready to summit by the very narrow window of time Everest allows.

Another part of the story is that of a young boy from Nepal (a week older than Peak) who is Peak’s rival in that he also wants to summit Everest – but his goal is due to trying to use the publicity (and the resulting money) to take care of his sisters and go back to school.

From the books I’ve read about climbing Mount Everest, Peak is accurate. It’s also very exciting. I’m planning to pair it with Within Reach: My Everest Story, an autobiography by Mark Pfetzer. I got the book from my daughter who has read it twice. I think it will be a hit among my middle school students.

Really cool libraries

I know that I just usually post about books, but I really loved these libraries. I think the top one is temporary -- don't know about the bottom one with the more classic titles.I wish I could do something like this to my library!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dead Connection by Charlie Price

If I had to summarize Dead Connection in one word, that word would be damage. Everybody in this book is damaged in some sense – some due to their own actions, others due the actions of other people.

Nikki Parker is a high school cheerleader who has been missing for some time. At this point everyone pretty much assumes she is dead, but her body has not been found.

Murray Kiefer spends a lot of time in cemeteries. Most people just think he’s weird, but there are reasons why he loves his time there. First, his mother is about as bad a mother as one could imagine. She barely provides for him, and the man in her life is constantly changing. Secondly, Murray’s big secret is that he can hear the voices of several of the dead people in the cemetery. These people are as real as the ones he sees every day. Now he hears a new voice but he can’t quite figure out whom the voice is or where it’s coming from. Could it be Nikki?

Enter Pearl. She’s the daughter of the cemetery caretaker and when she asks Murray what he’s up to, he won’t give her a straight answer. Her attempt at revenge backfires miserably but eventually they team up to try and solve the mystery of the mysterious voice.

There are other characters, including a schizophrenic young man and an alcoholic police officer, who all play a part in the final story. There’s also an unexpected ending.

I enjoyed this book but I didn’t love it. The only character I really felt connected to was schizophrenic Robert – I really liked the way his character was written. All in all, it’s a book that I would recommend to students put I wouldn’t push it as one of my favorites.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Two Boy Books

I recognize that one of my weaknesses is reading books that appeal to boys, especially 6th grade boys. I’m a sucker for teen problem books, but humorous fiction for boys just isn’t my forte and yet I’m constantly asked about them. Here are two books I’ve read recently. One I loved, the other I tolerated.

The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan
One of the things I love about the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is the theme of friendship. I also love the humor and the adventure. In this installment, Percy and Grover set out with Thalia and two of Artemis’ Hunters to rescue Artemis and Annabeth and, of course, save the world. Just like the other two books in the series, The Titan’s Curse doesn’t disappoint. It is just a blast to read, and it’s a great series to recommend to reluctant readers.

Qwerty Stevens Stuck in Time with Benjamin Franklin
by Dan Gutman

Qwerty Stevens has a machine that can bring people back and forth in time. He also has a problem with remembering to do things, like his American Revolution report. With less than an hour before the report is due, what choice does Qwerty have but to plagiarize someone else’s report and copy it off the internet.? In the process he accidentally brings Benjamin Franklin to the present time. It’s a shock for old Ben, but fortunately he’s a good sport and even agrees to go to school with Qwerty as “extra credit.” Things are seemingly going well for Qwerty and his friend Joey UNTIL they make the decision to send themselves back to 1776 so that they can accompany Ben and see the signing of the Declaration of Independence for themselves. They forget, however, to arrange for someone to bring them back. Are they stuck in 1776 forever?

I must admit that I can see how my 6th grade boys are going to like this book. It’s silly, and they will certainly be able to relate to Qwerty’s problem of forgetting his assignments. I, however, had a hard time relating to it – the premise of the Anytime Anywhere Machine was just a bit much for me.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Extras by Scott Westerfeld

So Tally Youngblood changed the world in Specials. People will no longer be brain damaged when they turn sixteen – they now have control over their own destinies. But what will they do with this new-found freedom?

In Aya’s city, what matters is being popular. That’s what determines your living conditions and for Aya, what she wants is to crack the top 1,000 of the most talked-about people. Unfortunately, at 451,369 she has a long way to go. But Aya has uncovered a mysterious group of girls that called themselves the Sly Girls – girls that avoid being popular but who do crazy, dangerous things like surfing on trains. And while riding with them, Aya discovers something even more horrifying – something that could threaten the existence of all those on earth. And eventually Tally Youngblood and her friends swoop in to help.

I liked Extras, but I must confess that it took me a while to get into it. The entire popularity theme is fitting for today’s world with all of our young stars that seemingly do anything to gain notoriety. I don’t think those at my school will enjoy it as much as they did the previous three books in the series, but I still think it’s worth reading and discussing.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Th1rteen R3asons Why by Jay Asher

What we say and do matters. Even the little things. Because sometimes the little things add up to make a big thing – big enough to end a life.

Clay Jensen comes home one day to find a shoebox-shaped package propped against his door. Inside are seven audiotapes. Clay goes out into the garage and finds a tape player and pops the first tape into the player.

“Hello, boys and girls. Hannah Baker here. Live and in stereo. No return engagements. No encore. And this time, absolutely no requests. I hope you’re ready, because I’m about to tell you the story of my life. More specifically, why my life ended. And if you’re listening to these tapes, you’re one of the reasons why.”

Clay cannot believe it. He had a crush on Hannah. How could he be one of the reasons why she killed herself? Although he doesn’t want to listen to the tapes he feels compelled to continue. And so begins a long tortuous night listening to tapes and following a map Hannah has prepared of the pivotal places in her life.

I read this book a week ago and have spent the time since thinking about it. As a teacher of middle school students, I am quite familiar with the callous way that kids treat one another. And as a victim of many comments when I was in middle school, I’m quite aware of the lasting effect these comments have on a person. But Hannah didn’t just suffer from terrible comments – there were also actions that damaged who she was. And in the end she couldn’t take it any more and she ended her life. And what makes it even sadder is that this story is so real – it happens all across our country.

I would highly recommend Th1rteen R3asons Why. It’s simply wonderful.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (audiobook)

How would you react if a catastrophic event threatened not only your existence, but the existence of everyone on the planet? I hope that I would have the common sense that Miranda’s mother had.

Told in the form of a diary, Life As We Knew It is the diary of a Miranda, a typical Pennsylvania high school student who is mostly concerned with typical high school worries: getting a date to the prom, fighting with her mom, doing her homework. She’s not all that fascinated with the news that an asteroid is going to hit the moon, but on the fateful night, she dutifully goes out to yard to watch the event. Nobody expects the asteroid to actually push the moon closer to the earth, and nobody is prepared for the aftereffects.

Miranda’s mother realizes that things will not be good. She clears her bank account and buys everything she can think of to ensure the family’s survival. As Miranda, her mother, and her two brothers go into survival mode, the world slowly crumbles around them. Massive tsunamis and earthquakes destroy large sections of the civilized world. Volcanic eruptions block out sunlight and cause an early winter (frost in August, winter quickly follows). There is no electricity, natural gas will soon run out, and there is no food in the grocery stores. Fortunately the boys spend a considerable amount of time chopping wood for their woodstove, and Miranda’s father and stepmother stop by with food on their way out west in search of a safer place to live. As time goes on, the family realizes that in order to survive, they will have to stretch out their food as long as possible. At first that means only two meals a day. Eventually it means much less. And friends around them are dying . . .

I was fortunate enough to get a free copy of the audio version of Life As We Knew It from Susan Beth Pfeffer’s website. I had really enjoyed the book and was eager to see how I’d feel about the audiobook.

Listening to an audiobook is a much different experience than reading the book. I tend to read pretty quickly – Life As We Knew It probably took me about two hours. I listened to the seven hours of the audio version on the way to and from work and it took about two weeks. Listening to the book made me appreciate even more what it must be like to be hungry all the time, and yet afraid that one day there would be no more food, and the family would simply starve to death. I also really loved Miranda. Ms. Pfeffer has done a wonderful job of portraying her character – she is a real, believable (and, at times, whiny) teenager who has to learn to deal with a truly horrible situation. Emily Bauer’s voice is perfect for Miranda. Sometimes I had to turn off the cd player and just think about what had happened and how I would react to it.

A couple of weeks ago I did a student survey with an eighth grade class. One of the questions on the survey was “What is your favorite book?” I was thrilled when one student (the only student at my school who’s had an opportunity to read it) chose Life As We Knew It. I had booktalked it to her class and she picked it out. Seeing a child check out a book that I loved and appreciate it herself is one of the most rewarding aspects of librarianship. I'm thrilled to have such a wonderful book to recommend to my students.

Rules by Cynthia Lord

Sometimes it’s really hard when someone in your family is different. Catherine’s younger brother is autistic and it seems that the entire house runs according to what’s best for him. Her parents don’t seem to really consider her needs at all because David needs so much. Catherine also has to deal with David’s embarrassing actions and so she has created a set of rules for him to follow:

Chew with your mouth closed.

Say ‘thank you’ when someone gives you a present (even if you don’t like it).

Sometimes people laugh when they like you. Bus sometimes they laugh to hurt you.

Keep your pants on! Unless Mom, Dad, or the doctor tells you to take them off.

No toys in the fish tank.

Catherine thinks that if David could just follow the rules, things would be ok. She often goes with her mom to take David to occupational therapy. She meets Jason there. Jason is in a wheelchair and he can only communicate with a book that has word cards. Gradually Catherine and Jason become friends but once again this causes her problems. What will her other friends think about Catherine if they find out about Jason?

I really liked this book. It was so easy to feel Catherine's pain. She obviously loves her brother but she gets really frustrated by him. It was also so easy to see why she would feel that she never gets her parents' attention. Raising a special needs child is truly difficult, and it is also difficult to be the sibling of such a child. Cynthia Lord (who has an autistic son) has done a wonderful job of looking into the life of a family with an autistic child.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

What Erika Wants by Bruce Clements

What Erika wants is to please everyone. Not a bad sentiment for a young girl to have but in Erika’s family it’s just about impossible. Erika’s mom left town several years ago and moved out west with her older sister. Now she’s back and she wants custody of Erika, and Erika’s father is not willing to let her go. Erika has been assigned her own lawyer, whose job it is to help her figure out what she wants and to take Erika’s wants to the judge.

One of the most striking things about this book is trying to figure out who is the adult. Erika is the youngest in age, but far and above the most mature. I think Erika’s father loves her, but he’s not really capable of showing outward affection. To be honest, I’m not sure why Erika’s mom wants her except to get back at the dad. Fortunately for Erika, her lawyer is wise enough to help her without telling her what to do, and in the end Erika makes the best decision for her, not for her mom and not for her dad.

The only problem I had with this book is that I think it will be a hard sell to kids. I’m just not sure how many of my students will appreciate it, but I feel that those who try will be rewarded.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Deadline by Chris Crutcher

I’ve often wondered what I’d do if I were told that I had cancer and the chances of recovery were not good? Would I go ahead and get treatment in the forlorn hope that it would work or at least stretch my life out a little longer? Or would I accept what was and try to live the most meaningful life I could in the time I had left?

Ben Wolf makes the latter decision. He’s eighteen years old, a senior in high school, when he finds out that he has an incurable blood disease. He orders his doctor not to tell anyone (and because he’s of legal age he gets away with it) and he sets out to have the best year possible.

Now Ben has his reasons for making the decision not to tell anyone. His mother is bipolar, with nightmarish manic and depressive cycles. Ben has no idea how his mother will react to the news, except it won’t be good. His father has all on his plate that he can handle. Ben also wants to be treated normally – he doesn’t want to be known as the “dying kid.” Finally, he wants to do some things that he would never have had the nerve to do otherwise – such as playing football (at 123 pounds) and seeing how far he can go with Dallas Suzuki.

So Ben plays football with his brother, starts a relationship with Dallas, and continually irritates his government teacher by pointing out how bigoted he is. To Ben, “somehow I knew my chances aren’t about living, they’re about living well” (p. 10) and that’s what he does.

Now one might assume a book about a dying kid would be depressing but this book is anything but. Ben has his moments of self-pity, but mostly this book is about getting the most out of what life you have and I must say I loved it. A couple of times I thought Crutcher might reaching a little far in the number of problems he brought into the book (a child abuser, a child molester, a victim of incest, etc) but the plot stays on Ben and that’s what makes the book work. This book was a winner.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Why I haven't been posting recently

In the past couple of weeks, I have devoted myself to reading some adult books. Since this is a young adult blog, I haven't been writing about them. What have I been reading? First I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. This book has made me think about what I eat and the need to eat more locally grown foods. I've moved from it to The Omnivore's Dilemma which I am still reading and probably will be reading for several more days. I find it fascinating and scary -- it is amazing how badly we can destroy our environment and our bodies all at the same time.

It is also amazing how little our children know about the food we eat. Friday I had a very earnest eighth grader ask me if roosters lay eggs. When I explained that they didn't, she then asked me if roosters were chickens (surely if they didn't lay eggs, then they couldn't be chickens). This led to a class discussion about farm animals. Many of the children who go to our school are rural children but they know nothing about the farms that surround them. We are taking our eighth graders to the state fair Monday and this is one of the reasons we are going.

After I finish The Omnivore's Dilemma I'll start A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray and will write about it as soon as possible.

Oh, I also read Rituals of the Season by Margaret Maron. I love her murder mysteries, partly because they are set in North Carolina near where my parents grew up.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Forged by Fire by Sharon Draper

Teachers and media specialists everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to Sharon Draper. I know that her books have been financially successful and as far as I’m concerned, she has earned every penny. I have never given Forged by Fire or Tears of a Tiger to a child and they not fall in love with it. These books are two of my “go-to” books when I have child who hates to read. As I said before, thank goodness for Sharon Draper.

When Gerald is three years old, his drug-addicted mother leaves him alone in their apartment. Gerald finds her cigarette lighter and accidentally sets their apartment on fire. He is rescued and his mother is sent to prison for child neglect and abandonment. Gerald is rescued by his Aunt Queen and he lives happily with her for the next six years. He heals emotionally and all is well until his ninth birthday. On that day his mother shows back up. It turns out that she was pregnant when she went prison, and her baby daughter, Angel, has been raised by her boyfriend, Jordan (now her husband), and her boyfriend’s mother. Gerald also meets Angel and Jordan for the first time. He tells them all that he wants to continue living with Aunt Queen and it looks as though that will happen until Queen has a heart attack later in the day and dies. Gerald is devastated. He loses the one stable thing in his life and is forced to go live with his mom and her new family.

Gerald immediately dislikes Jordan. He discovers that Jordan is both physically and emotionally abusive to everyone, and then he finds out that he is sexually abusing Angel. Gerald is brave enough to tell the father of one of his friends and Jordan is sent to prison. Unfortunately his mother refuses to believe her children and only wants Jordan back

Fast forward several years. Both Gerald and Angel have begun to heal emotionally from Jordan’s abuse. Angel has become a talented dancer and Gerald is a basketball player and all-around good kid. Then Jordan gets out of prison. Gerald’s mom wants him back in her house and soon enough he is. Although he is behaving himself for the time being, the reader knows that it’s just a matter of time until he is back to his old tricks again.

I reread Forged by Fire earlier this week because it is one of the books on North Carolina’s Battle of the Books list. I enjoyed it every bit as much this time as I did almost ten years ago when I first read it. Sharon Draper has written a book about serious issues, but has managed to do it in a way that makes it an appropriate middle school read. The book is free of swearing, and the sexual abuse happens “off camera.” As I said before, my students eat this book up. Yours will too.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande

Talk about an opener that grabs you!

I knew today would be ugly.

When you’re single-handedly responsible for getting your church, your pastor, and every one of your former friends and their parent sued for millions of dollars, you expect to make some enemies.
(p. 1)

Mena has not had an easy time of it recently. She has done something she is convinced was the right thing to do, yet now she is an outcast among all of those who meant anything to her: her friends, her church, and, most especially, her parents. She has grown up in an extremely conservative Christian family – one in which Harry Potter and even The Lord of the Rings is forbidden. She has no friends except those in church and now she has lost them. She is living a life in exile and she is miserable. Not only does she have to have to live without any friends, on her first day of school, she discovers that her former friends are going to bully her, both emotionally and physically.

In her biology class she meets her teacher, Ms. Shepherd, and gets a lab partner who is thankfully not a part of her church. Casey just appears to be a science geek, albeit one who can make her laugh. He does, however, want something from her that she thinks is impossible. He wants for her to work with him on a science project. Mena knows that there is no way her parents would let her go to a boy’s house, and so she lies in order to get there. As she discovers the life outside her church and family, the lies continue. It’s not that she’s doing anything most parents would object to – she’s absolutely not – but she does feel guilty about deceiving her parents.

Then crisis happens. Ms. Shepherd gets to the evolution section of her curriculum and Mena’s former friends rebel. They want the theory of intelligent design to be taught along with evolution. Ms. Shepherd refuses, citing the separation of church and state, and the all of the students who belong to Mena’s church pick up their chairs and turn their backs to the class. Each day, Ms. Shepherd utters the magic word, evolution, and the Back Turners assume their position. With the backing of the church, this has all possibilities of turning really ugly.

One of the things I loved about this book is that Mena takes something really bad and learns from it. It occurs to her, that had she not been ostracized, she would also be a Back Turner. And yet because she’s been given the opportunity to think about the issue, she agrees with Ms. Shepherd’s position. I also like the fact that she still feels loyal to her parents (although I would love to shake some sense into them) and she not happy about lying to them. Finally, Mena never questions her own Christian faith. She does, however, question the idea that those in her church are always right. It is possible to believe in God and to also believe in evolution. To truly solidify our faith, we must be willing to question it.

This book has characters that were really easy to like (as well as some that were really easy to dislike). Robin Brande must have had a blast writing the character of Kayla (Casey’s sister). I wish I could have had a science teacher like Ms. Shepherd. And Casey seems like an incredibly sweet lab partner/boyfriend. As I have said in previous posts, I'm a sucker for interesting characters, and this book is full of them.

I really enjoyed Evolution, Me & other Freaks of Nature. I’d love to use it in a book club setting so that we could discuss all of the issues it brings up. This was a great read.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer

As I waited impatiently for the copy of Eclipse to finally be shipped to my school library by Follett, I read a number of reviews of it by bloggers. Although many of the reviews indicated the readers were disappointed with the path the series is taking, Becky at Becky’s Book Review and Jen Robinson at Jen Robinson’s Book Page both have reviews of it that reflect the way I felt about the book. I’m not going to rehash what they said but I do want to add to it.

Many of the less-than-positive reviews I’ve read focus on the amount of agony Bella goes through as she is torn by her love for both Edward and Jacob (the reviewers say she whines too much). She wants to be a vampire so that she can always be with Edward, but she doesn’t want to hurt people, and she is acutely aware that becoming a vampire will hurt many people, most notably Jacob and her father, Charlie. Like I would, like anyone would, she just wants everyone to be friends – to be able to maintain the relationships that have been so important to her since she moved to Washington. She would be the worst kind of selfish person if she didn’t consider the long-reaching effects of her decision upon the lives of the other people she loves.

I must admit that as I read Eclipse, I kept thinking back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At the end of season 7 Buffy finds herself caring about two vampires, Angel and Spike. While Angel is her soulmate, she does acknowledge that Spike is also in her heart. She won’t deny either of them and she’s mature enough to know that she needs to grow up a bit more (or as she puts it, she’s uncooked cookie dough that needs to finish baking) before she decides upon her place with either of them.

That’s what I want Bella to do (and also what Edward wants her to do). So what if she’s five or even ten years physically older than Edward? She’ll have had plenty of time to make her decision and truly know that it’s the right one. Right now, my personal opinion is that she should choose to not become a vampire. Changing into something that will result in craving human blood forever? Into perhaps killing people? Not for me, and right now I don’t think that it’s for Bella at this point in her life. Meyer will have to do an awful lot of convincing in the next book for me to change my mind.

On a side note, the one thing I found frustrating about the novel is that I didn’t have time to reread the first two books and I needed to in order to understand some of the people that were being referred to. I never liked they way the Nancy Drew books always caught the reader up with who each character was, but I wish Meyer could have given me a little more to go on as I struggled to remember the stories of some of the minor characters.

I do love the way these books are clean reads – I can give them to any child and not worry about its appropriateness. I think I’ll hand them to my younger daughter next – she’ll love them.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier

Imagine living all of your life on the run with your mother. Never staying very long in any one location for fear that you might be found. Who are you running from? Your grandmother who says she is a witch.

This is what life is like for Reason. She and her mother Sarafina have spent their lives on the run from her grandmother Esmeralda. Sarafina has always told Reason that magic isn’t real and that Esmeralda is evil. But when Sarafina goes insane and is committed to a hospital, Reason is taken to Esmeralda’s house. Reason is afraid of everything in the house -- afraid of what her grandmother might have sacrificed in horrible rituals. Reason decides she is going to run away but when she leaves out of the back door, she is no longer in Sydney, Australia but in New York City. Magic is real and Reason is now on her own in a strange city and clueless about what to do next.

Reason is rescued by a girl named Jay-Tee, also magical who lives in an apartment owned by a man who loves to take magic from others in order to live longer. Reason knows that he is evil, but the confusing thing is, who isn’t? In this story in which most people aren’t obviously good or evil, Reason must try to figure out how to survive. Denying magic means that she will eventually go insane like her mother, but heavily using magic ensures an early death. Either way, her choices aren’t great.

I really wanted to like this book. I read Justine Larbalestier’s blog, and when I picked up the book from my school library, I was sure it would be a home run. I didn’t dislike Magic or Madness, but I didn’t love it either. I’m hoping to like it more after I read the next book in the series.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

I've spent the past week reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It is not the first time I've read it and it won't be the last. I truly love this book, but I've struggled to write a review of it so I'm giving up for right now. Suffice it to say that it is one of the books I'd take to a deserted island. Francie is one of the great characters in literature, and I learned more about poverty and succeeding against all odds from her than from any person I've met. Francie convinces me that what I do matters -- children can overcome their backgrounds.

One more thing -- if you have read the book and are ever in New York City, you MUST go to Lower East Side Tenement Museum so that you can truly understand how Francie lived (there's also a really good place to get fresh pickles that I'd highly recommend).

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

looking for alaska by John Green

As I’ve said before, there are books that are easy to review and describe, and then there are books that are more difficult. Sometimes I think it’s easier to talk about books you don’t like because there are usually specific things about a book that cause you not to like it.

That said, I’m not sure exactly how to talk about looking for alaska. John Green has written a coming of age story that reminds me of the ones I read for high school literature classes. It is not an easy story to read, but it is beautifully written and I couldn’t put it down.

Miles Halter is in the eleventh grade and he’s going off to boarding school. His life in Florida has been a bust – he has no friends, no life really at all – and he’s in search of the “Great Perhaps.” At school he meets his roommate, nicknamed Colonel, and Alaska Young, a beautiful, tormented girl who he immediately falls in love with but who has a long-distance boyfriend she never cheats on.

Although classes are harder than Miles expects, he also has a social life for the first time ever. The Colonel and Alaska teach Miles to have fun, and not through what we as adults would consider healthy means. They believe in smoking, in heavy drinking, and in elaborate pranks that get back at those they do not like (I found the pranks to be original and very funny). Things are good, and then . . .

It is easy to see why looking for alaska won the Printz Award for the Best Young Adult Book of 2006. In many ways it is a classic coming of age novel, yet it is also very fresh. It is also for mature readers. The language and sex in some scenes make it R-rated so I would recommend it for eleventh and twelfth graders.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Celebrate the Author Challenge

For my first challenge, I'm going to participate in Becky's Celebrate the Author Challenge. This challenge runs all of the 2008 calendar year. I had a lot of fun debating about which authors I'm going to read, and I think I came up with a variety of choices and alternates. I've read at least one novel by each of these authors except Robert Jordan. Some of them are favorites from childhood; others are authors I've discovered within the last few years. I'm looking forward to starting the challenge in January.

: Diana Gabaldon
Alternates: Robert Cormier, A. A. Milne

February: E.L. Konigsburg
Alternates: Meg Cabot, William Sleator

March: Ezra Jack Keats
Alternates: Carl Hiaasen, John Updike

April: Anne McCaffrey
Alternates: Maude Hart Lovelace, Shakespeare, Barbara Kingsolver

May: Scott Westerfeld
Alternates: Arthur Conan Doyle, Willo Davis Roberts

June: Sarah Dessen
Alternates: Dorothy Gilman, Dorothy Sayers

July: Beatrix Potter
Alternates: Chris Crutcher, Sharon Creech, Emily Bronte

August: Walter Dean Myers
Alternates: Karen Hesse, P.L. Travers

September: Joan Aiken
Alternates: H.A. Rey, William Faulkner

October: James Herriot
Alternates: Robert Jordan, Anne Perry

November: Madeleine L’Engle
Alternates: C.S. Lewis, Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Atwood, Frances Hodgson Burnett

December: Shirley Jackson
Alternate: Jane Austen

Poison Ivy by Amy Goldman Koss

We have all known mean girls. We have also known their victims. In this story, Ivy is the victim, Ann and her two girlfriends are the bullies, and the entire class witnesses everything and does nothing.

When Ivy’s government teacher Ms. Gold find a note from Ivy that might be construed as suicidal, she confronts Ivy and learns that she has been horribly bullied over the past several years by three girls in her class. While the entire class has been aware of the bullying, the teachers are oblivious to what’s going on. Ivy pours her heart out to Ms. Gold and her teacher reacts by deciding having a mock civil trial, with Ivy suing her tormentors. Lawyers and the judge are chosen by drawing names out of a paper bag and the trial begins.

As a middle school librarian, the bullying in Poison Ivy rang true to me. It might seem unrealistic that Ivy could be bullied for years and no teacher caught on. Unfortunately, mean girls also tend to be clever, and they are really good at saving their bullying for those moments when the teachers aren’t watching.

I liked having a book where the one who was bullied didn’t end up bringing a gun to school and shooting everyone – I seem to have read a lot of those books recently. I know that’s a direct reaction to Columbine and other school shootings, but the truth of the matter is that most victims of bullying just take it. They just die a little bit inside each time they are bullied.

I also liked many of the characters. Ivy isn’t a perfect child but she is just strange enough to be the perfect victim. As she withdraws more and more from her classmates, she exhibits habits (such as picking at her sweater and never seeming to be fully “with it”) that give her enemies more reasons to bully her. There was an Ivy at my middle school back in the 70’s, only her name was Sheila (fortunately for her or I’m sure she would have also been called Poison Ivy). The girls at my middle school could be vicious and Sheila was just strange enough to be the target of their wrath, and she was just naïve enough to never see it coming (as a contrast, Ivy does see it coming and her reaction has been to withdraw from everyone). Sheila didn’t go to our high school and I’ve often wondered what happened to her.

Why do the classmates put up with the bullying? I think it’s partly so that they don’t become victims themselves, and partly so that they don’t get ostracized from the ‘in crowd.” We as teachers need to continue to stress to our students the need to stand up for those who are victims to bullying.

Finally, one criticism. The character of Ms. Gold bothered me a lot. To think that middle school kids are mature enough to overcome peer pressure and their own personal feelings to make unbiased decisions in front of an entire class is incredibly irresponsible. What does she do if the class rules against Ivy? She jumps on a bad situation and tries to use it as a learning tool, but her whole plan ultimately backfires on her. The better solution? Take the whole situation to the guidance counselor who is professionally trained to deal with such problems.

Monday, September 3, 2007

memoirs of a teenage amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

First of all, let me say that I read Elsewhere this summer and it quickly made my list of favorite books read this year. So I approached memoirs of a teenage amnesiac with a little bit of trepidation. I thought I would either love it or be disappointed by it. Actually, I was neither. I liked the book a lot, but just not as well as I liked Elsewhere.

Naomi and her best friend Will are leaving school one day when they realize they have forgotten the yearbook camera. They flip a coin to see who will go back in and get it. Naomi loses and on her way back down the stairs, she trips and falls, hitting her head and causing partial amnesia. Naomi forgets the events of the past four years of her life (from 7th grade through 10th grade).

Naomi now has to figure out who she is. During the time period she has forgotten, her mother has had an affair, divorced her father, and gotten married, something Naomi hasn’t forgiven. Should she now? Her father has become engaged to a tango dancer, someone Naomi hasn’t been able to warm up to. Should she give her another chance?

And then there’s the matter of a boyfriend with whom Naomi cannot seem to make much of a connection. And the mysterious new guy who rode with her in the ambulance the day she was injured. Naomi feels pulled to him, but he is obviously damaged. Is that what appeals to him or is there something more?

If I had amnesia and had to learn all over about who I am, would I like her? Would I make the same choices, commit to the same groups? Those are just some of the things that Naomi has to deal with in memoirs of a teenage amnesiac. Today was a day well spent. I read a good book.

The Outsiders by S.E.Hinton

This won't be a full-fledged review of The Outsiders -- I will assume that most have read it. But when I checked the copyright date on the book, I realized that this year is its 40th anniversary and so I thought I'd post a few thoughts on a book that I've never had a student say they didn't like.

Somehow I made it through middle school and high school (and, I think, library school) without hearing about The Outsiders. Just goes to show what type of bubble I lived in. I'm not sure that I would have liked it back then. I do like it now.

Books like The Outsiders make you think. How can we, as a society, progress beyond the point where we stick artificial labels on groups of people based on where they came from or to which race they belong or their economic status? We know it's wrong and yet we still do it. We don't give people a chance. This is such a basic theme of so much literature, and yet we still don't get it.

I love the characters in this book. I think they are the main reason it still resonates with teenagers. I think Darry is my favorite, because of the sacrifices he has made in order to take care of his brothers (and because he does his best to insist on what's best for them).

One of the true classics in young adult literature -- may it never go stale.

Stealing Henry by Carolyn MacCullough

We all have to face the consequences of our actions – that’s a basic fact of life. What really hurts is when others are damaged because of the choices we make.

For the first nine years of her life, Savannah has known freedom. Crisscrossing the United States at her mother’s whim, she has loved the freedom of being a nomad. Although money is often tight (and there’s not always food to be had), she is happy. But eventually her mother grows unhappy and when their car breaks down in New Jersey, they go no farther. Instead, Alice meets and marries Jack and they have a son, Henry.

Jack and Savannah do not get along. He’s an abusive alcoholic and her mother tolerates it, telling them to go to a neighbor’s house when things get bad. One night when her mom is at work, Savannah snaps, hitting her stepfather on top of the head with the frying pan and escaping with her little brother Henry.

As Savannah’s story unfolds, we also get to know about Alice’s life through a series of flashbacks. Alice falls in love with a black man but gets pregnant with a police officer’s child. Unable to accept the fact that the man she is in love with has left town, she goes in search for him and ends up traveling all over the country. Her decision to leave her home in Maine irrevocably affects both her and the child she is carrying.

What’s interesting about this book is that it is full of bad decisions, made by perhaps every important character except Henry, who is just a little boy not allowed to make choices. I'm not sure, however, how realistic all of the choices are. Savannah’s choice to take Henry and run doesn’t ring true to me. Why doesn’t she find help at school or through Social Services? She has had one run-in with Social Services but it didn't seem so bad that she wouldn't feel like she could go to them. April’s decision at the end (which I can’t talk about without spoiling the book) also disturbed me. Although I have seen parents act this irresponsibly, it was hard for me to swallow.

The other thing that bothered me about the book was the cursing. Now I promise that I am no prude, but the beginning of this book had so many swear words that I found them distracting, which is my personal measure of whether or not cursing is appropriate in a book.

Today it’s off to read The Outsiders, another reread to prepare for Battle of the Books. If I manage to finish it quickly, then I’ll reward myself with of my new purchases.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Two Fun Nonfiction Reads

Some books are just fun to read. They aren’t deep but they are fun, especially if you love little, bizarre facts. They Did What?! Your Guide to Weird and Whacky Things People Do by Jeff Szpirglas fits the bill. Who would have thought that a ball of Elvis’ hair would have sold for $100,000? Or that people used to consume ground up mummies as a medicinal remedy? Boys would love this book. I loved this book. The illustrations are wonderful. Definitely one to share at school.

While I don't think that kids will fall for Fooled You! Fakes and Hoaxes Through the Years by Elaine Pascoe quite as much as they will like the previous book, I still think that they will enjoy it. I loved reading about many hoaxes that I had never heard of before. This book proves that humans can be really gullible and want to believe stories of the fantastic. I particularly enjoyed the chapter entitled "The Fraudulent Fairies" where two girls who didn't want to be in trouble for coming in late for lunch invented a story about meeting fairies and took photographs of these fairies (which they had created out of cardboard). Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed them!

Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Catherine lives during the Middle Ages when her options about how she will live her life are not great. She is fourteen, old enough to be married, and her father seems to be chomping at the bit to get rid of her. She has no desire to be married off, and certainly not to the men her father keeps bringing to the house. She works hard to repulse anyone who shows up and is quite successful until she meets Shaggy Beard, who is as determined to marry her as she is determined not to marry him. Who will prevail in this battle of wills?

We often think of the Middle Ages in romantic terms, but Karen Cushman doesn’t allow that. In Catherine, Called Birdy we are “treated” to all the sights and (especially) the smells of this era. Cushman also makes it painfully clear how few choices women were allowed back then. Give me the 21st Century any day.

This is at least the fourth time that Catherine, Called Birdy has been on the rotation for North Carolina Battle of the Books, but it had been a long time since I had read it. I really enjoy Cushman’s sense of humor. My only question is whether students will give the book enough of a chance to appreciate it. Except for the years that it is on the list, I don’t think anyone checks it out. I’m glad I reread it this year – I will push it in future years so that hopefully others will give it a chance.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Coming Up for Air

This has been the first week back to school for the students at my middle school. It’s been wonderful to see the kids again and hear what they’ve been up to. I’m so blessed by God to have this job and to know without a doubt that I’m where He intends me to be.

I’ve been working on preparing about 150 booktalks to do with the language arts classes during their orientation time. I’ve had 12 classes already and it’s been a lot of fun to talk about all of the books I read this summer. Books like Elsewhere and Life as We Knew It flew off the table after I booktalked them.

I have read exactly 56 pages of Catherine, Called Birdy this week. Needless to say, my fall goals have gone down the tube, but I vow to catch up during the long weekend.

I broke down and ordered three books from Amazon yesterday. My “to read” pile of personal young adult fiction now includes Peeps by Scott Westerfield, memoirs of a teenage amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin, looking for alaska by John Green, The Other Side of Dawn by John Marsden, Deadline by Chris Crutcher, Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande, and Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson. My “to read” pile of adult fiction is too high to mention and my school pile is ridiculous.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment by James Patterson

This isn't a real review -- no link to Amazon, no synopsis of the book. Just a couple of musings. I'm not going to take the time to write a long review because I didn't really like the book and don't feel it's worth my time. I guess what puzzles me is why I don't like it. It has the elements I enjoy. Suspense. Mystery. Survival. The theme of man manipulating science too much -- trying too hard to act like God.

Part of my problem is that I was never able to believe the scientists could be as cruel to little children as they are in this book. Yes, I've read many books about the Holocaust and the atrocities committed by the Nazis. But I still think Patterson pushes the button too far.

There are two other books in this series. My younger daughter loved them. The kids at my school love them. Maybe I'll try them and see if they can make me like The Angel Experiment any better. I guess, all in all, there are so many better books out there. Give me Uglies any day of the week.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt

Yesterday I was supposed to be reading Maximum Ride and writing Battle of the Books questions for it. Instead I found myself at the bookstore, no longer able to resist the urge to buy The Wednesday Wars. Now I admit that I was quite nervous about reading this book. I had read so many wonderful reviews of it and I was afraid that it wouldn’t meet my expectations of it. Well it did, and it exceeded them.

Holling Hoodhood knows that his 7th grade teacher hates him. After all, as the only Protestant in his class, he’s the only person left there on Wednesday afternoons when half of the class goes to Hebrew school, and the other half goes to Catechism. Mrs. Bates’ free Wednesday afternoons are ruined, just because Holling is a Presbyterian. After a month of doing chores such as beating out the chalkboard erasers, Mrs. Bates decides that Holling would benefit from learning great literature so she decides that he’ll read Shakespeare. Holling thinks she’s trying to bore him to death, but, much to his great surprise, he finds that he likes the plays she assigns.

There is much more to this book than Holling learning Shakespeare. There are many, many laugh-out-loud moments. There are many serious moments. The story takes place in 1967 and the Vietnam War intrudes on the lives of several characters. There are characters to love, and at least one character to hate (I wanted to reach through the pages of the book and strangle Holling’s father). Everything about this book is good. I will be a mighty sad person if it doesn’t win something in January.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Dreamland by Sarah Dessen

Somehow I find it difficult to write about books that I really loved. When a writer creates something truly beautiful, I want my review to be just as well written and it can’t be – I’m just not that great of a writer. So let me just say from the beginning that I loved Dreamland. I love Sarah Dessen’s books. She touches my heart.

Caitlin is the younger sister to the perfect child. Her older sister Cass was chosen to be homecoming queen, scored the winning goal in the soccer state championship, elected student body president, and accepted into Yale. There’s really no way for Caitlin to match up to all this perfection. And then, on Caitlin’s sixteenth birthday, Cass runs away from home to live in New York with her boyfriend.

Caitlin does the one thing that Cass never did – she tries out for cheerleading and makes the team. But even as she’s learning the routines and tumbling across the floor, she hates every moment of it. She is going through the routines of high school life, more for her mom than for herself. And then one night she meets Rogerson Biscoe. It is obvious from the beginning that Rogerson is a Rich Bad Boy – the type who is into drugs, sex, and rebellion. Rogerson sells pot to the local school crowd, and as he and Caitlin become a couple, it is clear that she is not going to be making the types of decisions that her parents would approve of.

Caitlin quickly begins to spiral down. She smokes pot with Rogerson and her friends, she skips class and cheerleading practice, and she lies to her parents about what she’s doing. Caitlin and Rogerson’s relationship becomes more and more physical and she begins to spend all of her time with him. Then one night, after she doesn’t show up to meet Rogerson, he hits her. And as shocked, and as hurt as she is, Caitlin takes it. “I could have just gotten out of the car and walked up to my house, leaving him behind for ever. Things would have been very different if I had done that. But the fact was that I loved Rogerson. it wasn’t just that I loved him, even: it was that I loved what I was when I was with him. Not a little sister, the pretty girl’s sidekick, the second runner-up. All I’d ever wanted was to make my own path, far from Cass’s. And even after what had happened, I wasn’t ready to give that up just yet.”

Rogerson controls Caitlin completely. Because she knows that he gets furious waiting for her, she is careful to be on time, to never let him see her talking with a boy, but still the beatings come. Caitlin has to keep her arms and legs covered at all times, so that no one will see the bruises. And she tells nobody what is going on with her.

I think this is the first book about dating abuse that I have read. I expected to identify with the victim, but I never expected to feel sympathy for Rogerson. He is bad and wrong and needs serious consequences, but he also needs a lot of help, and I felt sorry for him because I don’t think that he’ll get that help.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Bits and Pieces

Last night I read Who Owns Kelly Paddik? by Beth Goobie. It’s a high/low book, part of the Orca Soundings series. Kelly has been sexually abused by her father, tries to commit suicide, and is now institutionalized. Not great literature, but my eighth grade reluctant readers will eat it up. We have one other book in this series (more are on order) which I will be reading immediately.

I’m trying to come up with some fall reading goals. For right now, here they are:
1. Reread the Battle of the Books selections for which I haven’t written enough questions. The North Carolina list can be reached here. I’m torn about whether to blog about these books – none of them are new titles so I’m not sure what I’ll do.
2. Read at least one new-to-me title from my media center each week and blog about it, even if it’s an old title.
3. Read at least one non-fiction title each week. I really need to boost my collection of non-fiction booktalks.
4. Read a more-appropriate-for-high-school title every other week and blog about it. I have several sitting on my shelf right now and several more on my list that I just need an excuse to go the bookstore and buy.

School has started for me. I’ve gotten used to reading blogs several times a day. Now it will probably be only once a day. I miss it. Of course, it didn’t help that massive computer problems greeted me. Hopefully today will be better.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Daniel Half Human and the Good Nazi by David Chotjewitz

Daniel is half human. Now the logical question after this statement is: What is the other half? Perhaps Klingon? No, Daniel is half German and half Jewish and since Nazi Germany considers Jews to be a sub-human species, hence the half-human categorization.

Daniel, however, hasn’t always known about his Jewish ancestry. His mother wasn’t raised Jewish, and his parents have never mentioned it. So the story begins in 1933 with Daniel and his best friend Armin out painting swastikas on the walls of the town, trying to incite the local communists. They both desperately want to join the Hitler Youth, but their fathers won’t let them.

They are thrilled when the Nazis take control, but life soon changes drastically for them. Daniel finds out that his mother is a Jew and he cannot join the Hitler Youth because the background check will surely reveal his ancestry. Life becomes all about trying to hide who he is. Unfortunately, the secret gets out, and slowly the things that make up his life are taken away. His father, who is a prominent lawyer, loses his law firm because he is married to a Jewess, Daniel can no longer play soccer with his team and is eventually thrown out of school, and the family cannot enjoy doing such simple things as going to the cinema.

Throughout the story Daniel’s friend Armin sticks with him, but Armin does eventually join the Hitler Youth and has to make some very difficult decisions. Telling more would give away the ending so I’ll leave it there.

What made this book one of the best I’ve read this year? It was so very real and so very chilling. I truly understood how so many children were brainwashed in school to believe the superiority of their race above all others. The characters were real and sympathetic and I wanted each of them to end in peace with themselves and who they were. And finally, to watch the noose slowly being tightened around Daniel’s family’s necks, to know what happens in the end to the Jews who don’t manage to escape . . .

And then the ending. To be honest, I don’t know how I feel about the last page of the book. Obviously, I cannot talk about it without spoiling it, but it would make for great conversation. Let's say that it shocked me so much that I had to read it twice before it sunk in.

Last month I read Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (I’m trying to read a play each summer). I would love to teach a class that used both the play and this novel because they would make for wonderful discussions. One of my favorite speeches is Shylock’s that reads in part “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” It is sad to think that in 2007 groups of people are still considered by other groups to be only half human. Will the day come when we just treat everyone like human beings?