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!