Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Girl With All the Gifts

I've been on a hiatus as I transition to a new school and my youngest students ever...fifth grade! We are on winter break and I am unwinding with a book that would never be okay for my new students, The Girl With All the Gifts. Post-apocalyptic worlds, vengeful humans, and cruelty are not in the typical middle grade books. Save this novel for the high school students in your life, but definitely be sure to share it. It was intense, addictive, and a quick read.

There are so many surprises that I would hate to spoil, so I will just say that the ending was perfect and fitting.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Genghis Khan: 13th Century Mongolian Tyrant

It's that time of year again: my nonfiction unit is in full effect and I am reading lots of informational texts so I can recommend them to students. I went to a familiar well for this one; students always love A Wicked History books. Typically, all they need is to read one and then they are clamoring for the rest of the series!

Surprisingly, I haven't reviewed any of the books in this series, although Genghis Khan: 13th Century Mongolian Tyrant isn't my first. I've read about Henry VIII, Ivan the Terrible, Robespierre, Rasputin, Hannibal, and Mary Tudor. These are only a few titles in this gruesome series. I have many male students who became readers because of A Wicked History. All the books follow the same structure. There is an introductory chapter that demonstrates the ruler at their cruelest, then their lives are told chronologically. There are always illustrations and documents, as well as a family tree. The books are really well done and quick reads.

I've convinced my school to use their Scholastic credits to add to the collection, because I know that there will be a mad rush for them, once the students get a taste.

Monday, November 17, 2014

My True Love Gave To Me

I was so excited to read this book, since so many of my favorite YA authors contributed stories: Jenny Han, David Levithan, Stephanie Perkins, Laini Taylor, and Rainbow Rowell...all authors who have left me swooning. This holiday anthology was like the twelve days of Christmas (and yes, there were a few duds).

Golden Rings (the best stories): Rainbow Rowell, Stephanie Perkins, Gayle Forman, Laini Taylor, Kiersten White

Swans a Swimming (enjoyable): David Levithan, Holly Black, Jenny Han

Ladies Dancing (ok): Ally Carter, Matt de la Pena, Kelly Link

Geese a Laying (rotten eggs): Myra McIntyre

There is something here for everyone, and a few that I will be rereading often (Rowell and Perkins)!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir, is for savoring. Written in verse, Woodson tells the story of her life in a way that makes one consider how their life would be told.

I related greatly to a section about her older sister, Odella. Aptly called “The Reader”, I include it here:

            When we can’t find my sister, we know she is under the kitchen table, a book in her hand, a glass of milk and a small bowl of peanuts beside her.

            We know we can call Odella’s name out loud,
Slap the table hard with our hands,
Dance around it singing
“She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain”
so many times the song makes us sick
and the circling makes us dizzy
and still
my sister will do nothing more
than slowly turn the page.

I love this poem because it could be a description of me at any age from four until right now.

My students are big Jacqueline Woodson fans and will love this, as soon as we get our hands on a hard copy and not just the Kindle version I have been dragging out.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Ashes to Ashes

It's a rare thing for the last book to be better than the two that came before it, but Ashes to Ashes achieves it. Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian really turned things up a notch at the end of Burn for Burn and did not stop for this entire novel. Wow.

At the beginning of the book, the reader and Mary know she is dead, but her only friends, Lillia and Kat, do not. They also do not know that she is furious with them and wants revenge, not only against Reeve, but also against them for breaking their pact. Mary has all the time in the world, but for everyone else, time is running out.

As I mentioned in my previous reviews, I loved the Lillia chapters the most. They are obviously written by Han, her hand is obvious in the details and how the family is similar to Han's other books (and possibly, her own life). I love that there is an Asian protagonist who is the most beautiful girl in school, not relegated to the best friend role (Lane Kim from "Gilmore Girls" comes to mind.) We need more diversity in books and the beautiful model portraying Lillia on the cover of the books adds to that.

I hate to spoil books, so I will just say that I am happy with the ending. The resolution features a flash forward to the futures of the characters, which I love. The future of the characters is bittersweet and how it should be. It's fun to be able to recommend a series that just gets stronger. This is one that my ninth graders will adore.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Fourteenth Goldfish

There has been a lot of hype surrounding Jennifer L. Holm's The Fourteenth Goldfish and it is all well-deserved. What a magical book.

Ellie's grandfather is a scientist who could be described as crazy. He admits that, "All scientists are a little bit mad." Grandpa Melvin has been searching for the fountain of youth, a cure for aging, and he thinks he's found it. Ellie has found a passion for science, but also realizes that every choice has consequences.

There is so much juicy material to dig into in this book. I envision great discussions of ethics, raised by Grandpa Melvin teaching Ellie about the Manhattan Project and by his own experiments. It reminded me of the quote from Jurassic Park, "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." Powerful thoughts for middle grade readers, but ones they are capable of debating.

Working at the first Caribbean school to earn an eco-school Green Flag Certification, The Fourteenth Goldfish relates to our mission. Grandpa Melvin shares Salk's quote, "Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors." We live on a small island where the consequences of actions are very evident: so much plastic washes up on our beaches, the sun heats up the glass bottles that people litter and it causes fires, when we use too much water, we don't have enough for our needs. I want to read this book with our students and discuss how we can be good ancestors and how it is their responsibility as they grow.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween - A Round Up of My Scary Book Reviews

A goal that comes up every October is that I wish I had more scary books to recommend to students. I've read more scary books this year than ever before, so I thought it would be a good chance to organize my old (terrible) reviews and the newer ones. I present to you: all the scary books I could find in the archives. Click on the title to be whisked away to some nightmares…Beware!

The Girl from the Well
Ashen Winter
The Forest of Hands and Teeth
Darkness Creeping
Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories
The Ghost of Graylock
The Book of Bad Things
Down a Dark Hall
Tales for the Midnight Hour

Monday, October 27, 2014


What a strange little book.

Author Tony Abbott sums it up in this short paragraph towards the end of the book, "On the outside it doesn't look like very much happened. A burned girl was in my class for a while. Once I brought her some homework. In class she said my name. Then she was gone. That's pretty much all that had happened." That's exactly all the happened in the novel.

Tom's class is uncomfortable when Jessica Feeney joins their class. Her burns make her an outcast, yet Tom is drawn to her. Seeing how the students interact with Jessica changes the way he feels about them, but he isn't sure if it is for the better. Firegirl is a heavy book and I felt nervous in my stomach the entire time I was reading it, waiting for something awful and dramatic to happen. When nothing did, I was relieved but also disappointed that really, nothing had happened.

A student recommended this book to me last year, but I wasn't able to get my hands on it until now. I won't be passing the recommendation on, but I will let her know that I read it and am eager to see why she was so excited about it.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Prince of Venice Beach

I've read two of Blake Nelson's novels before and my feelings varied greatly; I loved Recovery Road and was bored by The New Rules of High School. Happily, Nelson's latest, The Prince of Venice Beach, falls into the love category. It was a great airplane read: a mystery that is light and engaging, with an endearing protagonist.

Cali is a homeless runaway who has somehow found a way to make things work. He's got a treehouse where he crashes, friends with whom he can play basketball, and a boardwalk where he can skateboard all day. When private investigators and the police begin asking him to help find missing people, Cali thinks he has found his calling. Since he knows everyone in Venice Beach, it's an easy job. But when he starts to learn the repercussions of finding people who are hiding on purpose, he starts to question if he's doing the right thing.

The major appeal of this novel is in the characterization. Cali has managed to stay sweet in spite of the hardships of life as a runaway. Critics could argue that Nelson sugarcoats the life of a homeless teenager, but I wasn't reading the book to learn about that. I enjoyed solving the mysteries of the missing people alongside Cali and watching how he and his friends looked out for each other. While definitely not as wacky or out there, The Prince of Venice Beach has a touch of Weetzie Bat to it, with its offbeat characters and obvious love for California. Fans of Francesca Lia Block's work might enjoy this, too.

Rather Be Reading has done a fun gift pack with items from the book. It's definitely worth checking out after you finish the book (to avoid any spoilers).

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Caribbean Picture Books

I want the students at my school in The Bahamas to have more experience with literature from the Caribbean. The options are more limited than from other regions of the world, so I am encouraging them to check out books that may be below their reading level, but will add to their understanding of the cultures of the Caribbean, as well as give them more exposure to characters like themselves in books. I want to talk to the students about what they relate to in these books and what is missing, ultimately, with the goal of some students writing their own books about The Bahamas.

Rachel Isadora's Caribbean Dream is a gorgeous picture book with simple poetry about daily life in the West Indies. I like that the poems are easy to read and relate to the images, but really, the appeal here is in the illustrations. Every page in the book should be framed and displayed as an example of the natural beauty of the Caribbean. The moments Isadora captures will be recognizable to anyone who has visited the area. I will definitely be picking this up as a birthday present for all my friends who have toddler and primary aged children.

Rachel Isadora's breathtaking artwork

As a Hispanic Studies major in college, I read many novels by Julia Alvarez, centered on Dominican characters. I've never read any children's books by her, though, so was excited to offer an option about the Dominican Republic to my students, who are too young for Alvarez's other novels.

The Secret Footprints is based on the folktale of the ciguapas, creatures who live in underwater caves and have backwards feet so that humans could not follow and find them. The book tells the story of Guapa, a brave ciguapa who gets too close to humans and teaches her fellow creatures that people can be kind. This is a story that would have enchanted me as a child, imagining that every pair of footprints I see on the beach could belong to a ciguapa.

Illustrator Fabian Negrin created dreamy images that had me focusing on the feet to see what we would look like if our feet were on backwards. In discussing this book with students, I would ask what details Negrin uses to anchor the book in a place. I would also ask what folktales from Bahamian culture would make a good picture book and why. This book is a treasure.

The streamer-tailed hummingbird is better known as Doctor Bird, the national bird of Jamaica. The three folktales in  Doctor Bird: Three Lookin' Up Tales From Jamaica are about how he uses his magical powers to impart lessons to Mongoose, Mouse, and Owl. While Ashley Wolff's illustrations gave plenty to look at and Gerald Hausman used descriptive language, these are stories that beg to be told orally. At the end of the book, Hausman credits the Jamaican storytellers who inspired this work. Unfortunately, I would prefer to see them perform or listen to a recording than to read this book, which I found weighted down.

Mongoose learns a lesson from Doctor Bird.