Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Crossover, Kwame Alexander

Title: The Crossover
Author: Kwame Alexander
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Year: 2014
Pages: 237
Genre: Realistic Fiction, Novel in Verse
Themes: Sports, Family, Growing Up, First Love, Dealing with Loss
Age Range: 3rd-8th Grade

Summary: from Booklist (mostly)
The Bell twins are stars on the basketball court and comrades in life. While there are some differences—Josh shaves his head and Jordan loves his locks—both twins adhere to the Bell basketball rules: In this game of life, your family is the court, and the ball is your heart. With a former professional basketball player dad and an assistant principal mom, there is an intensely strong home front supporting sports and education in equal measures. When life intervenes in the form of a hot new girl, the balance shifts and growing apart proves painful.

When their father dies unexpectedly towards the end of the book, Jordan and Josh are forced to examine their relationship, and realize that while they may have their differences, nothing more important than family.

Novels written in verse are big right now. I have a good friend who thinks that they are the kind of books that teachers like but don't really appeal to students. I suppose, depending on the book, that may be true. Books like Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and Words with Wings by Nikki Grimes may appeal to a more mature reader, and may not have the widespread appeal of a graphic novel like Raina Telgemeier's Smile or genre mash-ups like Big Nate or Captain Underpants. But I think that any reader will enjoy The Crossover. Mature readers will find the format appealing, less able readers will be sucked in by the subject matter, and reluctant readers won't be scared away by the amount of print on a page. Just an importantly, the style and subject matter should appeal to Africa American students, who don't often find their lives and culture represented in children's literature.

The style is not a gimmick. The book reads like a rap song, which in less deft hands could distract from the emotional impact of the story. But this book is full of heart, and it gave me one of my biggest cries of the reading year. Josh and Jordan as character ring entirely true-I have nephews that are just like them in many ways. Their relationship with their father, and ultimately with each other, reveal deeper truths about love and family, and the tumultuous time in life when children start to separate their identity from that of their parents. The books reads very much like a traditional coming of age story, focusing in social relationships and first romances, until tragedy strikes Jordan and Josh's family. Sparking conversation about the themes and structures of this books should be easy, making it perfect for use in guided reading, book clubs, or literature circles. The Crossover definitely deserves the the medals it received as the Newbery and Coretta Scott King Award winner for 2015.

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness

Title: The Knife of Never Letting Go
Author: Patrick Ness
Publisher: Walker
Year: 2008
Pages: 479
Genre: Science Fiction
Themes: Adventure, Good vs. Evil
Age Range: 8th through 12th Grade

Summary: from Goodreads

Prentisstown isn't like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else's thoughts in an overwhelming, never-ending stream of Noise. Just a month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd and his dog, Manchee -- whose thoughts Todd can hear too, whether he wants to or not -- stumble upon an area of complete silence. They find that in a town where privacy is impossible, something terrible has been hidden -- a secret so awful that Todd and Manchee must run for their lives.


This book is the first in a trilogy, and in the interest of full disclosure I will say that once you've read the first one, you are going to need to devour the entire series. It is such an interesting premise-reading about Todd and the men of Prentisstown made me realize just how awful it would be to hear everyone's thoughts, about everything, all the time, without any real ability to control the flow of information. The fact that he stayed sane long enough to run away is sort of amazing. Ness uses this phenomenon, and the gender differences in how it affects men and women on the planet these humans have colonized, as a way to explore some pretty dark ideas about sexism and patriarchy.

The men are definitely the villains in the first book, but as the series progresses it becomes much more sophisticated than that. By the end of the series there's the added perspective of one of the "aliens" (though really, if the humans are the colonizers, aren't they the aliens?), and Ness brings in issues of colonization and oppression of indigenous peoples as well. The story can certainly be read and enjoyed just as an adventure story, one where the forces of good an evil are caught in a life or death struggle for control, but there are deeper connections that can be made. This trilogy would make a good addition to a classroom library at the high school level, or for use in a book club setting. It is engaging enough that even reluctant readers will be drawn in. I am not the kind of person who reads an entire series in order, but this one I did. I couldn't wait to find out what happened to Todd and the people of this strange world.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein

Title: Rose Under Fire
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Year: 2013
Pages: 368
Genre: Historical Fiction
Themes: World War II, the Holocaust, Survival
Age Range: 7th through 10th Grade

Rose Justice is a pilot and poet. She is responsible for flying planes from France to England as part of the British army during World War II. During one of her missions, she is captured by German soldiers and taken to Ravensbruck, the notorious women's concentration camp. While there, she must find a way to survive, relying on the kindness of her fellow prisoners. Can she find the strength to withstand the terrible, terrifying conditions in the camp with her humanity and love of beauty intact?

This book is written at a fairly low reading level for the subject matter, but it is definitely a book that is best used in a setting where the students have some level of maturity, and enough background knowledge of World War II and the Holocaust to give them the ability to understand the underlying themes of the book. That said, I loved this book! There have been many, many books written about the Holocaust, as there should be. It is such a defining period in the 20th century, and only by revisiting it can we hope to prevent it from happening again. Sadly, there have been too many examples of similar atrocities being perpetrated around the world (the Rwandan genocide; the killings in Darfur, Sudan; the Srebrenica massacre, etc...etc...), but Hitler's concentration camps seem to have made a special impression on the minds and souls of much of the world, especially in Europe and the United States. This book stands out for me for two reasons. One, it deals with a female pilot. I suspect that there are many young people who don't realize that women were involved in the war effort in that way, and any time we can lift up the contributions of women I am all for it. Second, it specifically focuses on a women's concentration camp, which is something else that I think if fairly unique in literature for children and youth about the Holocaust.

What Rose and her fellow prisoners endured in Ravensbruck can be hard to read. But it should be. I hope we as a society never get to a place where we can feel comfortable reading about the deprivation, terror, and torture that took place in the camps. But that discomfort can lead to some great discussions with students about the nature of evil, the strength of the human spirit, the meaning of perseverance, and the value of art in human society. I'd recommend this book for use in guided reading, literature circles, or book clubs for middle school or early high-school youth.

Teacher Resources: 
Disney Hyperion Study Guide
Review and Author Interview
Elizabeth Wein's Blog

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Impossible Knife of Memory, by Laurie Halse Anderson

Title: The Impossible Knife of Memory
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
Year: 2010
Pages: 391
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: War, Family, PTSD, Suicide
Age Range: 9th-12th Grade

Hailey Kincain and her father Andy have been on the road for the last five years, trying to outrun Andy's post-traumatic stress disorder, Andy, a Gulf War veteran, has had trouble reintegrating into society since he came home from Iraq. Now that Hailey is in high school,  he's decided that it's time to stop moving, and they return to their hometown so Hailey can go to proper school.  While Hailey desperately wants a normal life, every day brings the constant fear that her father will fall victim to the demons that he's carried around with him since his time in the war. When she meets Finn, a hot boy from school who actually seems to like her, she dares to hope that maybe things are turning in her favor. But being home doesn't seem to be helping her dad recover from his PTSD, and when he starts using drugs and alcohol as a way to cope, Hailey worries that his terrible memories from the war will finally push him over the edge.

This young adult novel is a beautiful, heartbreaking, harrowing tale of the consequences of war on the people who fight it; consequences that affect not just them but everyone who loves and cares about them. Hailey-smart, mature for her age, forced to grow up before anyone should have to-is the caretaker of her little family. She spends so much time worrying about and caring for her father and his emotional symptoms that she really has no normal teen-age experience. She's constantly vigilant, attuned to every nuance of her father's behavior, prepared to do whatever it takes to keep him safe from himself. What she has to learn, and what Finn helps to teach her, is that her wanting him to be safe is not enough; he has to be willing to ask for and accept help to recover from his PTSD.

I think this novel will speak volumes to any young person who has personal experience with family members who have mental illness, especially PTSD. Hailey feels responsible for her father in a way no teenager should feel responsible for a parent. This is a fairly common theme in young adult literature, especially books that deal with issues of substance abuse, addiction, or mental illness-a theme which Anderson handles with her usual finesse. Anderson is a master at getting the reader to put themselves in the shoes of her characters, and she handles difficult subject matter with dignity and heart. You feel empathy, rather than sympathy, for Hailey, and for her father. Anderson portrays Andy in a way that shows how mental illness affects those living with it, and those living with those living with it, in a way that is non-judgmental and non-stereotypical.

There is a ton of fodder for discussion in this novel-but there are also a ton of possible triggers for people who have experiences like those in the book. If this book is used in a classroom setting, it's important to be clear with students and parents what the topic and themes are, and to make sure that students for whom these issues are raw and emotionally challenging have support. But I wouldn't dissuade anyone from using this book in class-I think it is very important to our culture for everyone, young and old, to understand the harm that is visited on soldiers and their families when they are sent off to war.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan

Title: Two Boys Kissing
Author: David Leviathan
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Year: 2013
Pages: 196
Genre: Realistic Fiction/Magical Realism
Themes: LGBT, Acceptance, Love, Family, AIDS
Age Range: 8th through 12th Grade

Summary: from Goodreads

New York Times  bestselling author David Levithan tells the based-on-true-events story of Harry and Craig, two 17-year-olds who are about to take part in a 32-hour marathon of kissing to set a new Guinness World Record—all of which is narrated by a Greek Chorus of the generation of gay men lost to AIDS. 
While the two increasingly dehydrated and sleep-deprived boys are locking lips, they become a focal point in the lives of other teen boys dealing with languishing long-term relationships, coming out, navigating gender identity, and falling deeper into the digital rabbit hole of gay hookup sites—all while the kissing former couple tries to figure out their own feelings for each other

I'm pretty sure I haven't read a David Levithan novel that I didn't like. Two Boys Kissing is a beautifully crafted story about what it means to be a young, gay man in America. The main characters, Harry and Craig, are at different places in their coming out. Harry's family knows and accepts him; Craig's family has no idea that he is gay, though he is out to all of his friends. When they decide to attempt to break the world's record for longest kiss, they know that the ensuing attention may make things difficult for Craig, but they and their friends are determined to make it happen. Choosing the front lawn of the high school as their base of operations only adds to the  likelihood that Craig's family will find out.

While they are preparing for, and then spending hours and hours kissing, we meet a cast of other young gay men. Ryan and Avery are falling in love, Neil and Peter are falling out of love, and Cooper has been looking for love through online hook-up sites. Each young man is struggling in his own way to be true to himself, and preserve his relationship with those around him. I think this is a fairly universal adolescent experience, regardless of a person's sexual orientation or gender identity, but the process is intensified (and often more dangerous) for queer youth.

My favorite part of the book, and the one that spoke the most to me as an adult reader, was the chorus of gay male "ghosts" that narrate much of the book. These nameless men are the cultural ancestors of the present-day boys in the story, and they carry much of the history of hatred and fear that characterized living as a queer person in America before the last decade or so. They are the ghosts of those lost to AIDS, and to hate crimes. In their present ghostly state, they can only observe the changes that have happened in regards to the acceptance and recognition of gay relationships since their time, and send all of their love and positive energy out to these young people who represent the reason they were fighting all those years ago. They don't go so far as to say that "the kiss" makes it all worth it-all of the sickness and death and violence and indifference-but each touch, each kiss, each loving moment shared between any of these boys is a marvel to them.

The novel presents an opportunity to talk about the issues facing gay youth today, and to explore the AIDS epidemic and the complete lack of response from the government that allowed it to go on so long without adequate funding for research and treatment. I could see this book being used in a sexuality education class as a jumping off point for discussions of healthy relationships, gender identity, and hook-up culture. Regardless, I think that any culturally responsive school library should include this, and many other exceptional LGBT titles, so that queer youth have a place to read stories about people like them, and so that non-queer youth can learn to have empathy for those walking a different path than they are.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Because of Mr. Terupt, by Rob Buyea

Title: Because of Mr. Terupt
Author: Rob Buyea
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Year: 2010
Pages: 288
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Themes: Friendship, School, Acceptance, Dealing with Tragedy, Forgiveness
Age Range: 3rd through 8th Grade

Seven students in Mr. Terupt's fifth grade class narrate this story about the power that one special teacher can have on the lives of their students. Told in alternating perspectives, this book follows the students in Room 202 through a school year that changed them all. Mr. Terupt is the best teacher any of them has had, a teacher who sees his students for who they really are, despite the masks they put on to hide their fears, insecurities, and family tragedies. When Mr. Terupt is gravely injured in a freak accident on the playground, his students learn the true meaning of taking responsibility and forgiveness.


I realize I am late to this party, but this book! I basically read it in one sitting, and I gave it a very rare five star review on Goodreads. As a teacher, I'm a sucker for inspirational teacher stories. Especially in the current school reform climate, I need as many reminders as possible as to why I chose this profession. To be honest, I feel like this profession chose me, and while I wouldn't say that I am quite as special as the fictional Mr. Terupt, I try my best every day to be as special as possible. Mr. Terupt's ability to see through the attitudes and behaviors of his students into the very things that made them tick is a gift that not all teacher have.

I was concerned that seven shifting perspectives might be too disjointed, but each student narrator is so perfectly written that I didn't even have to look at the name on the first page of each chapter to know who was speaking. I've been an educator for over twenty years, and in that time I have known students EXACTLY like the fictional students in this book. The brainiacs, the popular girls, the bookworms, the jokesters, and the kids who pretend not to care-I've dealt with them all. Any child who picks up this book is going to see themselves in at least one of the characters-I certainly did (Jessica, in case you're wondering). I can't imagine any student reading this book that won't get swept up in the emotions of it-these kids articulate common childhood feelings and experiences in a way that may help the children who read it figure out how to explain their own truths.

I've had a few days where I ended up crying at my desk over the year, and usually those were the bad days, the sad days. Today, as I closed the cover on the last page of Because of Mr. Terupt, I had tears streaming down my face for the best of reasons-because a book so moved me that I was swept away, not just reading a story, but living it.

Teacher Resources:

Bookrags Novel Unit
Kids Wings Activities
Discussion Questions from Conversation Pieces

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sisters, Raina Telgemeier

Title:  Sisters
Author: Raina Telgemeier
Publisher: Graphix
Year: 2014
Pages: 200
Genre: Memoir, Graphic Novel
Themes:  Sisters, Divorce
Age Range: 4th-8th Grade

Raina begged her parents for a sister.  She couldn't wait to have someone to share her favorite activities and deepest secrets with.  But when her sister Amara is born, Raina doesn't exactly get what she was hoping for.  Amara is a grouchy, cranky baby, and her mood doesn't really improve the older she gets.  When her mother announces that she and the girls will be driving cross-country for a family reunion, Raina is less than enthused.  Being stuck in a car with her siblings for days at a time doesn't seem to improve their relationship, and there is something strange going on between her mom and dad.  But when a roadside emergency causes both girls to put aside their petty concerns, they find that while they might not always get along, they always have each other's back.

This third book in the series of graphic novel memoirs by Raina Telgemeier lacks some of the scope and emotional impact of her other books, but it is still a story that many children can relate to.  I think most of us with siblings have had moments when we wonder if being an only child might not be preferable to living in a house with someone who seems to know how to push every last one of our buttons.

A lot of this book is about Raina coming to terms with the fact that the reality of her sister does not match her expectations.  Raina gets a taste of what it must be like to be the younger sibling when her older cousin, who she was looking forward to spending lots of time with at the reunion, suddenly doesn't have time for her.  Raina is in that awkward 'tween phase in this book, and as someone who successfully passed through it myself many years ago, I could easily put myself back in that place of uncomfortable uncertainty, holding on to the things from your childhood that you love, while trying to be more grown-up than you really were.  I think students who are in that stage themselves, or are soon to be, will feel a strong connection to Raina's character.  Some may see themselves in Amara's character as well, though since she is not the narrator we don't get quite as much insight into her own feelings about her place in the family.

The fact that Raina's parents are having problems becomes more clear as the story progresses, and I know that this is an experience that many children will experience sometime in their childhood.  While the parents' relationship issues are not resolved within the scope of the story, the subplot adds a layer of tension that increases the emotional intensity of the story, if only slightly.  And if all of this sounds like pretty heavy stuff, have no fear.  Telgemeier uses her rather dry sense of humor to lighten it up.

This book as seen heavy rotation among my 5th grade students, along with Telgemeier's first memoir, Smile. Boys and girls alike have enjoyed following Raina's story, and I look forward to using this book next year as part of a school-wide reading initiative.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Chained, Lynne Kelly

Title:  Chained
Author: Lynne Kelly
Publisher:  Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
Year: 2012
Pages: 248
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes: Friendship, Child Labor, Animal Cruelty, Freedom
Age Range: 4th-6th Grade

Summary: from Goodreads
After ten-year-old Hastin’s family borrows money to pay for his sister’s hospital bill, he leaves his village in northern India to take a job as an elephant keeper and work off the debt. He thinks it will be an adventure, but he isn’t prepared for the cruel circus owner. The crowds that come to the circus see a lively animal who plays soccer and balances on milk bottles, but Hastin sees Nandita, a sweet elephant and his best friend, who is chained when she’s not performing and hurt with a hook until she learns tricks perfectly. Hastin protects Nandita as best as he can, knowing that the only way they will both survive is if he can find a way for them to escape.

In the spirit of Water for Elephants and The One and Only Ivan, Chained portrays a tender, loving relationship between a wild animal and its caretaker.  Hastin and Nandita have a bond that transcends species, rooted in their shared desire to be reunited with their families.  Set in India, Chained provides young readers with a window into another culture, and into the plight of children living in societies where they are often manipulated and exploited for someone else's financial gain.

When Hastin's sister falls ill, his mother is forced to work as an indentured servant in the home of the wealthy business owner who paid the hefty hospital bill.  When Hastin sees the deplorable conditions in which he is living, he hatches a scheme to make his own money, freeing his mother from the cruelty of her "employer".  But Hastin gains his mother's freedom at the cost of his own, when he is duped into becoming an elephant keeper at a small circus in another part of the country.  Separated from everything he knows, he is forced to participate in the capture and training of a sweet baby elephant that he calls Nandita.  Some of the most emotional parts of the book are when Nandita is captured, and her family group tries to find her.  Luckily for Hastin and Nandita both, the circus cook is also a retired elephant trainer, who helps Hastin take good care of the young elephant despite her cruel treatment at the hands of the current trainer.  Neither Hastin nor Nandita could have survived their captivity without the care of the cook.

Regardless of the treatment he receives, or the length of his servitude, Hastin never loses hope that he will find a way to free himself from bondage and rejoin his family.  When the circus owner keeps adding time to his period of service, Hastin realizes that if he does not take matters into his own hands he will never be free.  Hastin is brave and compassionate, and selflessly refuses to leave the circus unless he can find a way to free Nandita as well.  His connection to the young elephant is a beautiful example for children of the power of loyalty and devotion.

I think that this novel would make a good addition to any elementary unit with a focus on the lives of children around the world, child labor, or animals.  There are many cross-curricular connections that could be made, with geography and ecosystems and environmental justice.  I plan to use this book next year as part of a "One Book, One School" program in my district, and I hope that the 4th graders who will be reading it find it as satisfying as I did.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Death Cure, James Dashner

Title:  The Death Cure
Author: James Dashner
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Year: 2011
Pages: 325
Genre:  Science Fiction, Dystopian
Themes:  Morality, Dystopia
Age Range: 7th Grade and Up

Summary: from Goodreads

It’s the end of the line.
WICKED has taken everything from Thomas: his life, his memories, and now his only friends—the Gladers. But it’s finally over. The trials are complete, after one final test.
Will anyone survive? 
What WICKED doesn’t know is that Thomas remembers far more than they think. And it’s enough to prove that he can’t believe a word of what they say.
The truth will be terrifying. 
Thomas beat the Maze. He survived the Scorch. He’ll risk anything to save his friends. But the truth might be what ends it all. 
The final installment of The Maze Runner trilogy has all of the action and excitement that you've come to expect from Dashner's dystopian novels.  You finally get to see what the world outside of the Maze and the Scorch is like, and the picture is not a pretty one.  Cities with uninfected people have become uneasy oases surrounded by hordes of Cranks (those infected with the Flare who have completely lost their sanity), and it is only a matter of time until the virus infiltrates their walls.  Thomas and his friends have no one to trust-they don't always trust each other.  They get connected with a group called The Right Arm, which purports to take down WICKED and end their experimentation, but will they be able to pull it off?  And are their motives as noble as they seem?

I felt like The Death Cure did not have the same level of emotional intensity as the first two books, at least not until the last quarter of the book or so.  There are some questions that are left unanswered, though I assume that at least some of them are explored in the prequel, The Killing Zone. We never get an explanation of how Thomas worked for WICKED before the Maze, nor do we learn very much about the genesis of the plague, though the epilogue answers one major question-how did the virus get out in the first place?  And if you are someone who likes their stories neatly tied up in the end, knowing what happens to all of your favorite characters, you may be frustrated with the conclusion.  But overall I think this trilogy is a fine example of YA dystopian literature, and I think it will especially appeal to readers (mot of who are probably male) who would appreciate the male protagonist and the lack of a real love story.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

Title:  Brown Girl Dreaming
Author:  Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher:  Nancy Paulsen Books
Year: 2014
Pages: 336
Genre:  Memoir, Told in Verse
Themes:  Black History, Family, Racism, Civil Rights
Age Range:  5th Grade and Above

Summary:  from Goodreads
Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. 

I have loved all of Woodson's books, and this one is no exception.  Her prose always read more like poetry to me, so I was glad to see this book is told in verse.  Growing up in both the Jim Crow south and the Civil Rights era north, Woodson was in a unique position to witness racism and discrimination in both its over and covert incarnations.

While her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement and its affect on her daily life is central to the novel, at its heart this book is about a young girl with a complicated family, trying to figure out where she fits in the world.  Being of two worlds often made her feel like she never really belonged to either, being too country for the urban northerners and too city for her rural family.  Woodson points out the many ways she felt like the "other", and the subtle and not-so-subtle signifiers of her "otherness"-her speech patterns, her family configuration, her desire to write stories, despite not always being the best student in school.  Woodson speaks lovingly of her grandparents, who symbolize stability and permanence.  Her feelings about her mother and father are just as loving, but less grounded.  Her father is not a part of her life, her mother leaves to find work in the city, eventually pulling her and her siblings away from their grandparents' home.  And, of course, with aging grandparents come the sad reality of declining health and death, which deal a blow to the fragile ground upon which Woodson builds her sense of self.

I think that only the most mature, sophisticated fifth graders would be ready for this book, not because there is anything objectionable in it, but because I think the narrative structure and the sometimes oblique references to the events that shaped the Civil Rights movement would be lost on someone without sufficient experience to understand.  But this book, which won the National Book Award for Young Adult Fiction for 2014, is certainly accessible and appropriate for use in middle or high school, and is gorgeous and moving enough to speak to adult readers as well.