Monday, April 29, 2013

Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine

Title:  Mockingbird
Author:  Kathryn Erskine
Publisher:  Philomel
Year:  2012
Pages:  224
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Disabilities, Autism, Overcoming Loss
Age Range:  4th-8th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
In Caitlin’s world, everything is black or white. Things are good or bad. Anything in between is confusing. That’s the stuff Caitlin’s older brother, Devon, has always explained. But now Devon’s dead and Dad is no help at all. Caitlin wants to get over it, but as an eleven-year-old girl with Asperger’s, she doesn’t know how. When she reads the definition of closure, she realizes that is what she needs. In her search for it, Caitlin discovers that not everything is black and white—the world is full of colors—messy and beautiful

Erskine does an excellent job creating believable, relate-able characters, and Mockingbird is no exception.  Caitlin has Aspergers syndrome, a neurological condition about which much has been written over the past decade or so.  Now considered one of the conditions under the umbrella term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), people with Aspergers syndrome are often highly intelligent, creative people with difficulty understanding and processing pragmatic language and emotions.  Caitlin is very self-centered, but not in the conceited way of a spoiled child.  Caitlin has trouble with empathy, which becomes apparent early on through her interactions with her father, her counselor at school, and her father.  What makes this book about a child with ASD different from others I have read is the emotionally charged context-Caitlin's brother was killed in a school shooting, which forces her to come out of her own Caitlin-centric world and begin to take the needs and feelings of others into account.

Given the years I spent teaching special education, I'd say that Erskine is right on in regards to what she imagines goes on in Ccaitlin's head.  Of course, it's hard to say, since as far as I know Erskine herself does not have Aspergers, but it feels authentic based on my experiences with kids who have ASD.  Sometimes (unintentionally) funny, sometimes heartbreaking, always honest, Caitlin as narrator gives the story an emotional punch that would not be present in third person.  Dealing with the loss of her brother, and the subsequent grief of her father (as well as her own), is the instigating act that sets in motion a period of growth for Caitlin-and for the community as a whole.

While we have had way too many opportunities to read about school shootings and their aftermath, I think that Erskine does a good job framing the story with the shooting without describing it in such detail that it might frighten younger readers.  This book, despite the topic, is very accessible to mature 4th grade readers, and has something important to say to students in the middle grades.  Ultimately, Caitlin is not the only one to discover her empathy within the context of the story, and students can discuss what it means to be accepting of people with disabilities.  Also, any child who has suffered a major loss should find things that will resonate with them, and give them a chance to process their loss and discuss it in a less-threatening way through Caitlin's story.

Teacher Resources:
Lesson Ideas from Six Trait Gurus
Novel Study from
Kathryn Erskine's Website

Friday, April 26, 2013

Smile, by Raina Telgemeier

Title:  Smile,
Author:  Raina Telgemeier
Publisher:  Graphix
Year:  2009
Pages:  224
Genre:  Realistic Fiction, Graphic Novel
Themes:  Coming of Age, First Love, Friendship
Age Range:  6th-10th Grade

Summary:  (From Goodreads)
Raina just wants to be a normal sixth grader. But one night after Girl Scouts she trips and falls, severely injuring her two front teeth. What follows is a long and frustrating journey with on-again, off-again braces, surgery, embarrassing headgear, and even a retainer with fake teeth attached. And on top of all that, there's still more to deal with: a major earthquake, boy confusion, and friends who turn out to be not so friendly.

 While I've never been a huge fan of graphic novels for my own adult reading, I understand completely their popularity, especially with younger readers.  Connecting strong illustrations with a well-written story is sure to be engaging for readers who are transitioning from picture books to chapter books, and the number and quality of graphic novels for young readers is increasing.  Traditionally looked down upon as frivolous, the rich story telling present in modern day graphic novels-both for children and adults-is revitalizing the genre and allowing stories to be told in new and different ways.

Telgemeier's books, Smile and Drama, are not what people generally think about when they hear the term graphic novel.  The genre, popularized by horror or science fiction authors such as Neil Gaiman (The Sandman), Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (The Watchmen) and Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), is often seen as a way to tell fantastical stories of monsters and heroes.  But Telgemeier's books tell ordinary stories-stories of friendship and love and adolescence, but in a format that appeals to readers who like a side of good art with their storytelling.  Smile is the story of one girl's transition from awkward, brace-faced tween to confident, self-assured teenager.  The story (based on Raina's actual childhood) is literally framed by the many things that happened to Raina's teeth, but the feelings she has and the realizations she comes to are universal for American adolescents.  I think that girls especially will identify with the story, which in itself is unusual in the graphic novel biz, which is much more geared towards male readers.  But I think that all kids, regardless of gender, will appreciate Telgemeier's wit and insight into that most painful, embarrassing time of life-middle school!

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic Lesson Plan
Raina Telgemeier's Website
Graphic Classroom Review

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Boys Without Names, by Kashmira Sheth

Title:  Boys Without Names
Author:  Kashmira Sheth
Publisher:  Balzer & Bray
Year:  2010
Pages:  320
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Social Justice, Child Labor
Age Range:  5th-8th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
For eleven-year-old Gopal and his family, life in their rural Indian village is over: We stay, we starve, his baba has warned. So they must flee to the big city of Mumbai in hopes of finding work and a brighter future. Gopal is eager to help support his struggling family until school starts, so when a stranger approaches him with the promise of a factory job, he jumps at the offer. 
But Gopal has been deceived. There is no factory but, instead, a small, stuffy sweatshop, where he and five other boys are forced to make beaded frames for no money and little food. The boys are forbidden to talk or even to call one another by their real names. In this atmosphere of distrust and isolation, locked in a rundown building in an unknown part of the city, Gopal despairs of ever seeing his family again.
Then, late one night when Gopal decides to share kahanis, or stories, he realizes that storytelling might be the boys' key to holding on to their sense of self and their hope for any kind of future. If he can make them feel more like brothers than enemies, their lives will be more bearable in the shop—and they might even find a way to escape.

The first book I read by Kashmira Sheth was called Keeping Corner, and told the story of a 10 year widow in early 20th century India, forced to live a life of mourning because her betrothed had been killed before she was old enough to marry him.  I was impressed with both her ability to create such authentic feeling characters, and with the depth of her understanding of the social and cultural factors that were in play, both within the girl's small Brahman community and in the larger historical context.

In Boys Without Names Sheth once again writes a story full of believable characters, characters who change and grow in unexpected ways throughout the course of the story.  As Gopal and his family left their village and traveled to the city, I knew that they would be out of their depth.  It was a little bit like watching a disaster happen in slow motion, at least as an older reader.  I know enough about the region to know that children are often victimized in this way, either because their parents are naive to the promises made by "recruiters", or because poverty forces people to make desperate decisions.  Younger readers may not have the background knowledge to connect the dots while they are reading, but I think that they will be able to identify with Gopal and his friends.  Because I think that there will have to be some robust discussion for students to understand the context for the story, I think this book is best used in a guided reading setting.

Teacher Resources:
Junior Library Guild Reading Guide
Harper Collins Discussion Guide

Monday, April 15, 2013

Graceling, by Kristin Cashore

Title:  Graceling
Author:  Kristin Cashore
Publisher:  Harcourt
Year:  2008
Pages:  471
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Self-determination, Oppression, Hero's Quest
Age Range:  9th Grade and Up

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
In a world where people born with an extreme skill—called a Grace—are feared and exploited, Katsa carries the burden of the skill even she despises: the Grace of killing. She lives under the command of her uncle Randa, King of the Middluns, and is expected to execute his dirty work, punishing seland torturing anyone who displeases him.
When she first meets Prince Po, who is Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change.
She never expects to become Po's friend.
She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace—or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away...a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone

I'm a fantasy reader from way back, so I fully expected to enjoy this book, which every other reviewer I've read has loved, and which has on Illinois' Abraham Lincoln list of best books for young adults.  What I didn't expect was it to feel so fresh.  Like I said, I've read a lot of fantasy-it can be hard to bring something truly new to the plot or story structure that I haven't read somewhere before.  But despite some very familiar fantasy elements (people gifted with special powers, kings and queens and princes), Cashore did manage to create a world that is distinct.

The story moves at a good pace, and though explaining the Grace and Gracelings require some exposition, there is enough action interspersed to keep the reader engaged.  But what really made this book for me Katsa-her strength and determination definitely come through, and despite her feelings of self-hatred as a result of her special skill, she is trying so hard to be a moral person, and it is that struggle that made her so interesting to me.  Much of the book deals with the responsibility to wield power to help and not hurt, to be honest and not manipulate others, to do what is best not just for yourself but for others as well.  And despite the love story subplot, this is not a romance at all.  Not even romantic, really, since so much of our ideas of romance come from an uneven power dynamic between the lovers.  Katsa and Po are evenly matched, if not skill for skill, in their overall personalities.  They complement each other in a way that doesn't diminish either, and I found that refreshing.  The book highlights the intersection of power and morality in a way that I think is very accessible to the younger reader.  Katsa is a hero that all young girls should read.  Deeply flawed, but striving every day to be better; strong without being cruel; full of self-doubt, but not paralyzed by it.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Just Juice, by Karen Hesse

Title:  Just Juice
Author:  Karen Hesse
Publisher:  Scholastic
Year:  1999
Pages:  144
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Poverty, Overcoming Hardship, Perseverance, Literacy, Disability
Age Range:  3rd-5th Grade

Juice Faulstitch doesn't like school.  Letter and numbers just don't make sense to her.  She'd rather skip school and spend the day walking around the North Carolina countryside with her out-of-work father any day.  Her two oldest sisters are in school, her two younger sisters are at home with their mother, and with mom pregnant with baby number six, she doesn't have time to energy to force Juice to school.  Her family is poor, poorer than anyone they know.  Her father is an out of work miner, and the family gets by on government assistance.  Their house was left to them by a relative, but they haven't been able to pay the taxes.  Now the county says they are selling the house for taxes, and Juice and her father have to come up with a plan to save their family.

There is a lot jammed into this very short book.  I almost listed historical fiction as the genre, until I realized that everything described in the book-the unemployment, the poverty, the illiteracy, the lack of medical care-are circumstances that are still all too common in the Appalachian region of the country, which is presumably where this family is from.  Juice clearly has a learning disability, but is afraid to let her teacher give her the tests that could identify it and help her learn.  Her father, it turns out, is also illiterate, which is what keeps the family from dealing with the tax mess before it was too late.  Juice's mother does what she can to help the family get by, making craft items to sell in a shop in town, but with five children to look after-plus one on the way-and a husband with depression, which the father certainly has, she has about all she can handle.  Their remote location and lack of reliable transportation make it difficult for her to get medical care, and if not for a visiting nurse she would likely have died of gestational diabetes.  Juice and her family have seen a lot of the downside of life.

But despite all of their challenges, there is great love obvious in the family.  The girls all care for each other, and try to help Juice learn enough to "catch up" with school.  Their father obviously feels incredibly guilty about his inability to make a living to support them adequately, and Juice lives to take him out of his head and be as big a help to him as she can.  Mother and Father are clearly in love, and neither wants to burden the other with more stress or bad news.  But if there is one thing that is clear from the story, it is the importance of communication-including and especially the written kind.  The problem of illiteracy was the largest stumbling block for the family, affecting every other part of their lives.  Reading this book is likely to make most children more grateful for the blessings they have, but Juice's character is not someone to be pitied.  She is smart and resourceful, and despite her many challenges she as a strength of spirit that is admirable regardless of a person's circumstances.

Teacher Resources:
Scholastic Discussion Guide
Literature Circles Guide

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, Wendy Mass

Title:  Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life
Author:  Wendy Mass
Publisher:  Little Brown Books for Young Readers
Year:  2006
Pages:  304
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Dealing with Loss, Coming of Age, Overcoming Obstacles
Age Range:  4th through 8th Grade
Summary:  from Goodreads

In one month Jeremy Fink will turn thirteen. But does he have what it takes to be a teenager? He collects mutant candy, he won't venture more than four blocks from his apartment if he can help it, and he definitelydoesn't like surprises. On the other hand, his best friend, Lizzy, isn't afraid of anything, even if that might get her into trouble now and then.
Jeremy's summer takes an unexpected turn when a mysterious wooden box arrives in the mail. According to the writing on the box, it holds the meaning of life! Jeremy is supposed to open it on his thirteenth birthday. The problem is, the keys are missing, and the box is made so that only the keys will open it without destroying what's inside. Jeremy and Lizzy set off to find the keys, but when one of their efforts goes very wrong, Jeremy starts to lose hope that he'll ever be able to open the box. But he soon discovers that when you're meeting people named Oswald Oswald and using a private limo to deliver unusual objects to strangers all over the city, there might be other ways of finding out the meaning of life.


The death of a parent is an event that is destined to have a profound impact on anyone, but especially a child.  In that regard Jeremy Fink seems to be doing better than most.  He misses his dad, but he was a great relationship with his mom, and his best friend Lizzy's daughter, plus his dad's best friend,  provide positive male role models for him.  But as he approaches his 13th birthday, he can't help but wonder what advice his dad would have for him about navigating the murky and sometimes dangerous waters of adolescence.  When he is given a box from his father labeled "The Meaning of Life", he is desperate to find out what's inside.  The only way to open the box and preserve the contents is to find the keys, which sends Jeremy and Lizzy on a city-wide search for old key collections.  As in many aspects of life, it turns out to be the journey, rather than the destination, where he learns the most about just what the meaning of life could be.

Mass has done a wonderful job creating an authentic emotional landscape in this novel.  Jeremy's very tween-ness reminded me of just how awkward and painful the land between childhood and adolescence can be, and would be very relateable to young people reading the book.  The character of Lizzy keeps Jeremy (and the reader) from becoming too angsty, though.  Their friendship is one of the best parts of the book.  I especially appreciated that it is a boy/girl friendship.  Too often I think we make an artificial divide between "boy" stories and "girl" stories, and Jeremy and Lizzy prove that boys and girls can be close friends, even as their differences become more obvious.  There are tender moments in the story, and hilarity occasionally ensues, but what Mass has given us is a fairly straightforward story of being lost, and somehow finding our way, even if the destination is not the same as the one we thought we were traveling towards.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Sparks, by S.J. Adams

Title:  Sparks
Author:  S.J. Adams
Publisher:  Flux
Year: 2011
Pages:  256
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Identity, Belonging, GLBT
Age Range:  8th Grade and Up

Summary:  from Goodreads
Do you feel lost? Confused? Alone? (Circle one): Yes or No. The Church of Blue can help. We are not a cult. $5 for a holy quest is a good deal. Since sixth grade, Debbie Woodlawn has nursed a secret, heart-searing crush on her best friend, Lisa. But all those years of pretending to enjoyFull House reruns and abstinence rallies with Lisa go down the drain when her friend hooks up with Norman, the most boring guy at school. This earth-shattering event makes Debbie decide to do the unthinkable: confess her love to Lisa. And she has to do it tonight--before Lisa and Norman go past "the point of no return." So Debbie embarks on a quest to find Lisa. Guiding the quest are fellow students/detention hall crashers Emma and Tim, the founding (and only) members of the wacky Church of Blue. Three chases, three declarations of love, two heartbreaks, a break-in, and five dollars worth of gas later, Debbie has been fully initiated into Bluedaism--but is there time left to stop Lisa and Norman from going too far?


Adams story of a young girl struggling with her unrequited first love is funny, with a cast of characters that felt very authentic.  Debbie is alternately confused, confident, self-deprecating, and courageous; the mix of emotions felt very much like I remember from my own adolescence.  In a way, that was one of the nice things about the book-even though it deals with a young woman coming to grip with her own feelings towards girls, it shows just how alike the experience is for young people, whether gay or straight.  Of course, Debbie deals with a few things that make her situation unique, but the story is written in such a way that it feels universal.

One of the things I also appreciated about the story was that it didn't demonize the rather conservative Christian values of some of the other main characters.  In fact, it was clear that while Debbie was dealing with her own romance troubles, the "abstinent" kids in the book were also struggling with how to live up to their principles, given all of the urges that overtake us in those years.  While Debbie comes to realize that the world of abstinence only clubs and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes might not be the world for her, Adams doesn't go so far as to suggest that it might not be right for anyone.

Sparks also deals with some of the repercussions of adolescent culture's sometimes rabid insistence that everyone has to fit into a box.  Debbie was a clean cut, feminine girl who happened to like other girls instead of boys.  Her rather effeminate friend Tim is assumed to be gay after a girl he rejected in middle school starts a rumor about him, but he is really in love with his friend and fellow Bluedaite, Emma.  Emma plays the fat, funny, sarcastic girl that everyone thinks she is-until she confesses her love for Tim.  No one is exactly what they seem-not even Lisa, who, it turns out, knew about Debbie's crush on her for years, but stayed her friend anyway.  Overall, I think that high school students will recognize something about themselves in reading this book, and even though Debbie's unrequited love is never, well, requited, the book ends on a positive, hopeful note.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher

Title:  Thirteen Reasons Why
Author:  Jay Asher
Publisher:  Razorbill
Year:  2007
Pages:  304
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Depression, Suicide, Living with Consequences, Interconnectedness
Age Range:  8th Grade and Above

Summary:  (from Goodreads)
Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a mysterious box with his name on it lying on his porch. Inside he discovers thirteen cassette tapes recorded by Hannah Baker, his classmate and crush who committed suicide two weeks earlier.On tape, Hannah explains that there are thirteen reasons why she decided to end her life. Clay is one of them. If he listens, he'll find out how he made the list.

I originally found this book on a "Best YA Books" list, from Amazon or Scholastic or something, and thought it sounded like an interesting narrative structure.  Which it is, without a doubt.  But what really convinced me to pick it up was the reaction of some of the teenagers in my life to the book.  Without exception, the teens I know who've read it were profoundly moved and affected by it in some way.  And they seemed to fall into two distinct groups-those who identified more with Hannah, the girl who kills herself, or Clay, the narrator and our guide through the tapes.

For obvious reasons I am slightly more concerned by the youth who identify more closely with Hannah, but I also get it.  Hannah was a regular girl-not someone who was seen by others as odd, disturbed, eccentric, quirky, etc...She was just a girl, trying to fit in, with a "reputation" for promiscuity that was completely fabricated by some other kid who was desperately trying to do the same.  Hannah felt that her true self was slowly fading away, being replaced by this persona that was created for her, and which various people she came into contact with either contributed to or failed to confront.  Add to that sexual assault, isolation, and guilt, and you have a pretty powerful cocktail of teenage despair.  What the teens I know identified with was not so much her desire to end her life, but an understanding of how much of our self-image is wrapped up in how other people see us, and how loneliness and the feeling that you don't belong anywhere can damage a person's psyche.

The person I felt myself most drawn to, as did some of the youth I have discussed this book with, was Clay. Because I think that more of us find ourselves in Clay's position than in Hannah's (though far too many teens feel exactly as Hannah did).  Because Clay, even though he was on the list, was a good guy, who failed to do the right thing.  Of course, he didn't really know at the time what the right thing was-he is, after all, a teenager himself.  But of all of the people Hannah traces her suicide to, he is the most innocent, both to the reader and to Hannah herself.  In a way I felt like this was a cop out by Asher, to make the one person who is innocent of any real part in the downward spiral of Hannah's life the sympathetic narrator, but now I'm rethinking.  Because I think that perhaps the most powerful statement the book makes is that what we say and do matters, and that the small cruelties or deceits that we perform have consequences we can't always imagine.  Because despite the fact that Clay's part in Hannah's decision was as a result of an inaction, instead of an action, he still feels a strong sense of guilt and responsibility.  Too many of us do nothing.  We content ourselves with being bystanders, feeling better about ourselves because we are not perpetrators.  But it is our very passivity that allows rumors to go unchecked, unkind acts to go unchallenged, despairing people to remain isolated-doing nothing can sometimes be as bad as doing the wrong thing.

I think that this book would engender good discussion if used in a whole class or small group setting.  Because of the nature of the rumors about Hannah, and the not-at-all-graphic but still horrifying rape scene, I probably wouldn't use this book in the classroom below eighth grade.  But a mature 6th or 7th grader might be able to handle it, especially if they are already having to confront the things that Hannah faces in the book.

Teacher Resources:
Penguin Teachers' Guide
Bookrags Lesson Plans
TeacherVision Lesson Plans

Juniper Berry, by M.P Kozlowsky

Title:  Juniper Berry
Author:  M.P. Kozlowsky
Publisher:  Walden Pond Press
Year:  2011
Pages:  227
Genre:  Fantasy
Themes:  Greed, Family, Friendship, Courage
Age Range:  3rd-5th Grade

Summary:  (from Goodreads)

Juniper's parents have not been themselves lately. In fact, they have been cold, disinterested and cruel. And lonely Juniper Berry, and her equally beset friend, Giles, are determined to figure out why. 
On a cold and rainy night Juniper follows her parents as they sneak out of the house and enter the woods. What she discovers is an underworld filled with contradictions: one that is terrifying and enticing, lorded over by a creature both sinister and seductive, who can sell you all the world's secrets in a simple red balloon. For the first time, Juniper and Giles have a choice to make. And it will be up to them to confront their own fears in order to save the ones who couldn't. 

I picked this book up at the Scholastic Book Fair at my school in the fall, but by the time I got around to reading it I'd forgotten almost everything about it!  I did remember being drawn to the cover, which I thought seemed rather sinister for a children's book cover.

Well, sinister was definitely the right word for both the cover and the story.  Despite the fact that Juniper keeps remembering the good times with her parents, their behavior at the beginning of the book reminded me of a Roald Dahl grown-up, namely mean and cruel.  Koslowsky did an excellent job evoking loneliness, explaining why Juniper was so quick to make friends with Giles, and why she was susceptible to the monster living in her yard.  It is also what leads Juniper to a terrible choice-accept the creature's help in getting her parents attention, or destroy him in the hopes that her parents will go back to who they once were. This is a novel all about living with the consequences of our choices. I think that there are some decent discussion points in this book-what it means to be lonely, is being a celebrity worth it if you have to cut yourself off from the world, what would you do in Juniper's place-so I think this book could be used for guided reading, or to have in a leveled library for reader's workshop.