Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Other Side of the Sky

Farah Ahmedi's memoir was the hottest book among the Pre-AP classes during our nonfiction unit. We have two copies and the girls were flying through it, so I knew I needed to read it so I could discuss it with them and my future students. The most impressive part of The Other Side of the Sky, for me, is that Farah is still a teenager and she was able to describe her difficult childhood so clearly and maturely. Having lost her leg to a land mine and most of her family to the Taliban, Farah has many reasons to grieve, yet she is optimistic and hopeful.

My main takeaway, though, was to be upset with her useless mother. Yes, she was probably suffering from PTSD, but she did absolutely nothing to help her daughter, so Farah was thrust into the role of caretaker at the age of ten. Many scenes have the same occurrence: "My mother sank down onto her bundle and started wailing in despair. I put my arms around her and tried to comfort her, but when I felt that frail body of hers shaking and trembling in my bony embrace, my own heart dissolved and I started to cry too." While I felt sorry for the struggles that Farah faced after losing a limb, I felt worse for her because she did not have a competent adult to care for her.

The mother aside, this is a good way for students to learn about Afghanistan, and on a broader note, to be kind and welcoming to new students in their school, who may be too shy to reach out.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

What I've Been Doing...

One of the few photos of me in Brazil…I was so busy!

I crossed "Go to Brazil" off the top of my Life List last week; I traveled there to co-present at the AASSA conference. My presentation was on building a culture of literacy at your school and it was the best possible environment for my first conference presentation! I was in a classroom, the attendees chose to be there, I was working with a good friend, and talking about my favorite topic! To check out the website that accompanied our presentation, please visit Resuscitating Reading

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


After reading so many dramatic books, Shug reminded me that there is plenty of drama in the daily life of a middle schooler.

Shug is a southern girl who is struggling with the changes that come with growing up. She finds herself always one step behind: still wearing a one-piece when everyone else is in a bikini, still hoping for fried chicken when all the other girls are on a diet. Adding to her confusion is a crush on her lifelong best friend, Mark and increasing marital issues between her parents.

That's it. No zombie viruses. No tragic parental deaths. Just the challenging business of being twelve. When a writer is as talented as Jenny Han, that's enough. This middle grade novel is different from her usual books, but her insight is exactly the same. She knows her audience when she writes, "Losing a boy best friend is one thing, but losing a girl best friend, your true best friend, is a whole different story. It's like losing a rib. There's something missing inside of you that you didn't even realize was there, and it makes it hard to breathe." It's passages like this that will really connect with my students; it's passages like this that made me order multiple copies for next year.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Counting by 7s

"My edges are gone. I'm sea glass. If you look hard, you can see right through me."

When a car accident takes the lives of her parents, child genius Willow Chance is set adrift. She finds no joy in the things that usually interest her: germs and diseases, gardening, counting by 7s. On top of living life in a haze, she has no relatives and no one to take her in. Somehow she gets mixed up with a crew of misfits: loser social worker Dell, at risk teens Mai and Quang-Ha, taxi driver Jairo, and nail technician Pattie. All of these people are damaged in some way, but through their relationships, they heal and move forward.

After reading an entire zombie series, I really needed Counting by 7s. While I complained that Holly Goldbery Sloan's I'll Be There was too saccharine, I found this novel to hit just the right balance. Yes, there were many unrealistic elements like characters winning the lottery and unexpected riches, but if you think of the story as a fairy tale for middle grade readers, you can swallow the inconsistencies. These are characters that the reader wants to succeed, and they do. This is the book that I will hand my students after they have read something sad and need a hopeful novel.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Fire & Ash

There's nothing like finishing a series you have loved. I always feel adrift and need to read a palate-cleansing book, something like a professional development textbook, to prepare me to enter a world different from the world I've been enjoying. I feel really fortunate to have discovered Jonathan Maberry's Benny Imura series after they all have been published, so I could plow through them. I loved watch this group of teenagers mature, be challenged, and save the world.

When reading a series, I have to wonder if the entire thing was plotted out in advance. Did Maberry always plan to have Benny mature from a lazy, whiny goofball to a genuine samurai? I tend to like the villains in novels, but with this series, I loved them all and all the shades of morality that they represent.

I don't want to give any spoilers because these four long books are an investment and it would be a shame to spoil that for others. I will say that I am so excited to learn that there is an entire series based on Joe Ledger, one of my favorite characters from these books. So, I guess I don't have to cleanse my palate quite yet!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Flesh & Bone

It's safe to say that I'm addicted to Jonathan Maberry's Benny Imura series. I'm recommending it to my friends and squeezing in reading time whenever I can. I finished Flesh & Bone during our school's DEAR time today, and I immediately started the final book in the series. I'm already sad that this series will come to an end!

In the third novel in the series, the characters are mourning the loss of a loved one and the fact that everything seems to be falling apart. After surviving the horrors of Gameland, we want them to be able to relax and make some progress in their journey. Unfortunately, that isn't meant to be when you live in a place called Rot and Ruin. They come across a religious cult called the Reapers, who are hell bent on turning everyone into zombies.

Despair is the overwhelming feeling of Flesh & Bone. At several occasions, the characters remark that they never have time for laughter or conversations, they are just trying to survive. The book feels that way, but is paving the way for the finale. I still have hope that although beloved characters keep dying and strange new villains appear, the end will be satisfying.

One of my favorite things about the book is that we finally get to see the famous Zombie Cards that the kids collect and trade. To the right, you'll see the major villain for the final book, Saint John of the Knife. I'm eagerly anticipating how our heroes will face off against him.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Dust & Decay

I just learned that February is Women in Horror Month, which lines up perfectly for me, since I spent much of the month reading horror novels. My treat to myself on our week-long field trip to the coffee zone was to read Stephen King's Doctor Sleep (I usually only read young adult and middle grades books during the academic year), which stars a gifted and powerful little girl. Following that, I got into Jonathan Maberry's Rot & Ruin series, with its enigmatic Lilah the Lost Girl and likable Nix Riley. I finished the month with the second novel in the series, Dust & Decay.

It is rare for me to enjoy the second book in a series more than the Dust & Decay takes everything I enjoyed about its predecessor and ramps it up a notch. The action and fights are more frequent and intense, we already know the characters and some of the bounty hunters only mentioned before are now central characters, and the zombies are more frightening. To use a pun, this series is infectious. My dog's foot got tangled in my hair as I slept and my dream became about zombies. I spend a lot of time thinking about zombie escape plans. And I'm as curious as the characters in the books to find out why the zombies are suddenly acting differently.

There are some plot points that I strongly dislike, but I am now a devoted fan of Jonathan Maberry and have faith that he is taking his readers somewhere exceptional.

Friday, February 28, 2014


What a strange book Lola: A Ghost Story is. It definitely has an original conceit: a Canadian boy travels with his family to the Philippines for the funeral of his clairvoyant grandmother. He doesn't want to accept that he may share his grandmother's gift, although the visits from his late cousin say otherwise.

I may have been thrown off by the illustrations, which were all in a muted brown. At times, it made it difficult to distinguish time shifts and between characters. I also think that a lack of color was a poor choice for the setting, which could have been so beautiful.

My favorite part was learning a little more about Filipino culture, including some folktales and vocabulary. I wish there was more of it and more story in general, but Lola cuts off abruptly, with an ambiguous, and in my opinion, unlikable ending.

On the plus side, it only took me twenty minutes to read, but I won't be recommending it to anyone.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Independent Study

Independent Study, the sequel to The Testing, has been out for a while but it took a reminder that I need to pull together this year's summer reading list to get me to read it. As I mentioned in my review of the first book, this series is very similar to The Hunger Games. Since I have many students wandering around in a post-Katniss stupor, wondering what to read next, I wanted to add Joelle Charbonneau's series to the list.

Cia has entered university, but the events of the Testing continue to haunt her. She has brief memories of the past which make it difficult to trust anyone, including her boyfriend, Tomas. Cia finds herself the target of scrutiny from administrators and jealousy from her peers. Can she avoid punishment while trying to find a way to end the Testing for good?

I previously questioned how Cia managed to remain such a Pollyanna after a series of tragedies and hoped that Charbonneau would explore Cia's dark side in the second novel. I guess I will have to wait for the final book in the trilogy for that, because Cia continues to remain optimistic and moralistic throughout Independent Study. Her constant response to anyone who questions her is, "It's the right thing to do." Towards the end of the novel she learns that things aren't always black and white; eventually, Cia will have to make decisions that hurt some while benefiting others. While I find it unrealistic that Cia does everything perfectly, I like that my students can have her as a role model. There's always room in my library for a confident girl who excels in math and science.

I read Independent Study in one day and am eagerly awaiting Graduation Day, which will be published in June. Even better, with this and its predecessor on our summer reading list, I will have plenty of people with whom I can discuss the series.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Rot & Ruin

Ooh, this was a good one!

Since reading the latest Stephen King a few weeks ago, I have been in the mood for some good old fashioned horror. When it can be added to the eighth grade summer reading list? Even better!

After an unexplained event called First Night turns much of the population into zombies, California is divided into small protected towns and the rot and ruin that surrounds them. For Benny Imura, this is all he has ever known.When Benny can't find a job and his rations are threatened to be cut off, he decides to join his brother as an apprentice bounty hunter. What he finds in the rot and ruin changes everything he knows.

Only now that I am reflecting on it do I realize how subtly author Jonathan Maberry changed the mood in the novel. For a zombie novel, it started out lighthearted, with Benny joking with his friends and a humorous introduction to the jobs that are necessary when the world is overrun by zombies. It doesn't take long, though, for things to fall apart and for Rot & Ruin to become serious.

I love the imagination it took to create this world. What are the fears? Who are the heroes? What is there to reach for? I became very attached to some of the characters and was actively rooting against others. This is what it's like to participate in a book.

Rot & Ruin is too heavy and gory for my sixth graders, but the eighth graders that my friend teaches will eat it up, pun slightly intended.