Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez

I'm on an Alan Lawrence Sitomer kick and this time, I got to read the book first! The Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez tells about the life of a Latina growing up in Los Angeles. Her hardworking father supports her, but the rest of her family abuses and takes advantage of her for her entire life.

Sonia is an admirable girl, patient and persistent. There were so many incidences in the book that made me wish she would lash out at her cruel family. I can't imagine putting up with half of the abuse Sonia does, but I will defer to Mr. Sitomer, who apparently based this novel on experiences of some of his students.

As for my students, I know they will love this novel. Like Homeboyz, this novel will get a "Ninth Grade Only" tag on the cover. There are a lot of curse words and mature situations involving drugs and sex. I wish there had been better pacing in the novel. I expected there to be more time in Mexico, but it felt rushed. Even more rushed was Sonia's senior year of high school, with the first semester spanning only a few pages and a tacked-on destiny. Mr. Sitomer writes the female voice well and I look forward to more stories about female protagonists that make their voices heard more clearly.

Monday, March 29, 2010


Paul Fleischman's tale of atonement is deceptive. It has a strange drawing on the cover (which turns out to be a whirligig) and is only 144 pages, so one would think that is a breezy little ditty. It's not. Whirligig starts out with a bang (literally, a drunk driving accident) and continues to be thoughtful and heavy throughout.

After Brent kills a girl in a mistaken suicide attempt, he is sentenced to place whirligigs in the four corners of the US in order to honor her. Brent is a spoiled teen whose parents want to figure out his problems for him, but he decides to head out on a road trip to fulfill his mission. Along the way, he learns self-reliance, his values, and how to forgive himself and others.

Fleischman grows Brent beautifully into a man who is shaped by the actions he's taken. I often like to think in terms of "sliding doors" (like the Gwyneth Paltrow movie), where would Brent be without this tragedy? Definitely a worse person, drifting angrily throught life. I hope my students are able to look past the cover, which definitely won't appeal to them, and enjoy this story. I know I will be pushing it hard to the ninth graders who are making big decisions right now.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Finally, I got to read Homeboyz.

First, let me say that this review won't be impartial, as I am a huge fan of Alan Lawrence Sitomer, the author. He was the 2007 California Teacher of the Year, still teaches in downtown LA, is a popular author, and a prolific contributor on the English Companion Ning. I often wonder how many hours he gets in a day, as I only get twenty four!

I have been waiting for over a month for my chance to read Homeboyz. The 9th graders have been passing it back and forth, never allowing me to get my hands on it. A few pages in, I wondered if that was intentional. There is some serious cursing in this novel! I grabbed a silver sharpie and wrote "Grade Nine Only" on the front before I continued reading.

This is the final installment in the trilogy that includes The Hoopster and Hip Hop High School. It details Teddy Anderson's quest for revenge after gang violence claims his younger sister. As a protagonist, Teddy is unlikeable; he is a disrespectful thug with a superiority complex. Sitomer endows him with the some pretty spectacular abilities: insomnia that only requires two hours of sleep each night, superior intellect, a superfit body, and genius computer skills. Sitomer knows LA teens better than I do, but that seems like a pretty unlikely combination.

Regardless of these quibbles, I really enjoyed Homeboyz. The story is engrossing and the plot twists surprised me. It is obvious why my students enjoyed it so much and are desperately waiting for Sitomer's next novel to hit our shelves. I recommend picking up this book and reading it before adding it your class' shelf.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Laurie Halse Anderson is the queen of suburban girls in a downward spiral. From eating disorders to college stress to divorce to sexual assault, her heroines hide their problems behind extreme behavior. She has an amazing ability to get into the minds of these troubled girls and draw the reader in as well.

Catalyst takes place in the same community as Speak (note to self: do not raise a teenager girl there) and focuses on Kate Malone. Teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Kate is awaiting admission to MIT, where she sent her lone college application. She is also not dealing with her mother’s death, trying to run a household, and deal with a bully named Teri Lynch.

All of Anderson’s work is dark and Catalyst is no exception. Kate is an unlikable character and does not rouse very much sympathy from the reader. In fact, none of the characters are likable, but they are extremely readable. Full of unexpected events, I found Catalyst hard to put down.

From Speak to Wintergirls to Catalyst, this is my year of Laurie Halse Anderson. Please, somebody donate Fever 1793 or Chains to our school!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Sea, The Storm, and The Mangrove Tangle

First off, this is not a young adult book, which I try to focus on in this blog. Lynne Cherry's picture book is written for children in 1st to 3rd grade. Still, it is an amazing resource that worked really well with my students this week.

We read The Sea, The Storm, and The Mangrove Tangle aloud and my middle schoolers were not even going to pretend to be cool, they were so excited to have someone reading them a story. The plot describes decades in the life of a mangrove tangle, as a propogule breaks off, survives a hurricane, and creates its own mangrove tangle. After reading the book, we discussed what we could see in mangroves (everyone was using the correct terminology from the book), and then we went out to nearby mangroves and explored. We definitely saw a lot of featured organisms. It was a really fun introduction to an experience that got the students excited.

I love incorporating quality picture books into my instruction. I recommend giving it a try and seeing how much everyone enjoys it!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Home of the Brave

Katherine Applegate's gorgeous Home of the Brave tells the story of Kek, a Sudanese refugee who moves to Minnesota to start his new bittersweet life. Almost everyone in his family is dead and his mother is missing, so he stays with his aunt and a cousin who lost a hand in the war.

There are so many beautiful details in the story, such as Kek's friendship with Gol, a cow that he adopts. It has funny moments too, such as when he puts his aunt's dishes in the washing machine, shattering them all. I found myself rooting for Kek, hoping that his mother would return, that he would make friends, that he would have the happy ending that he deserves.

The free verse writing makes it a quick read, although I found myself pausing to reflect on the story or just admire Applegate's word choice. I think that some of my quiet students will really connect with Kek but I think anyone will enjoy it. Put it on your bookshelf now.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Trojan Horse: The Fall of Troy

The Graphic Universe publishing company puts out a series of graphic novels based on myths and history. My students cannot get enough of them, to the point where I keep them on my desk instead of in the library where they will disappear!

The Trojan Horse: The Fall of Troy gives a good background to students who are years away from reading The Iliad. This book, along with the rest in the series, gets reluctant readers interested in mythology. They are quick reads; once a student gets into the series they usually visit me every morning for another one to read.

The books are very short, about 50 pages, which makes them pretty expensive with their $9.00 pricetag. Still, for the number of students reading them we have gotten our money's worth. My recommendation is to buy it for your classroom or school library, but just take it out of the local library if you are considering the series for your home.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Some books are classics for a reason. I remember reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry when I was in middle school. Fifteen years later, I'm teaching it. I know Mildred Taylor's novel so well by now, I could probably recite an entire chapter (and the chapters in this book are long!)

My students connect so much with the story of the Logan family's struggle to keep their land and battle against racism in 1930s Mississippi. They feel victorious (some classes even clap) when Cassie takes her revenge on Lillian Jean Simms and are stunned to silence and tears by the fate of TJ Avery. The end scene gives me goosebumps every time with its stunning imagery. Occasionally I run into a high school alum that will recite the poem from the beginning of Chapter 11 (I didn't even need to look up the chapter number) verbatim. It's a beautiful thing to see students love a book so deeply.

If you haven't read Roll of Thunder since you were eleven, it is time to check it out again.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Chew On This

Chew On This: Everything You Don't Want To Know About Fast Food is a nonfiction book that will have students clamoring. Once one student shares a particularly gross passage about the food they crave, they will all want to read this book to have facts with which to pester their families.

Fast food has an even more mythical status on my island, where no such restaurants exist. If someone is eating KFC or Sbarro at school, that means someone went to Nassau or the States and brought them back these goodies. I find it helpful to counteract that worship with some reality. In my eighth grade class, we read the chapter on soda together. There is an image in the book of baby teeth which had rotted because the child was given soda in her bottle. Apparently, there was nothing shocking about these teeth to my students, who all knew at least one person with a similar mouth. This led to really fantastic discussions about responsibility and hygiene. I would love to see Chew On This incorporated into the Health curriculum at our school as required reading. For kids who adore fast food, it's a bit of a game changer.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

When the Black Girl Sings

When the Black Girl Sings is the story of Lahni, a black girl adopted by white parents who are about to divorce. She is struggling in a lot of different ways: with snobby girls at school, with feeling betrayed by her father, with a strangely rude boy who is essentially stalking her. When it seems like nothing will ever go her way, she joins a church choir and becomes more confident and comfortable in her own skin.

Something I admire about this novel is that it is very clear that the boy who is stalking Lahni is out of line. So often, that rude boy character is revealed to have a soft interior and ends up in a relationship with the protagonist. This is not the case in When the Black Girl Sings and I feel that the novel is better for it.

Bil Wright does not tread on new territory here, but he does it with great respect for Lahni. I love teen novels where characters find their voice, both figuratively and literally.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Every Living Thing

Cynthia Rylant's collection of short stories, Every Living Thing, is exquisite. Each story details the way a person's life is changed through their interactions with an animal. The stories are deceptively simple and a quick read, but have so much heart.

This is the book that I hand to struggling readers who are having a tough time. It is also the book I reach for when I need a quick story to demonstrate a teaching point. I read "A Pet" to my ninth graders last week when we were discussing how to create likeable and unlikeable characters. This four page story about a girl and her goldfish had my 'mature' students analyzing and volunteering like mad. 
I keep Every Living Thing close at hand during my planning. I have used its stories countless times and will continue to do so for their sweetness, simplicity, and gorgeous writing.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Becoming Chloe

I was so thrilled to win Becoming Chloe in a giveaway. I was really hoping to add it to our school's library until I was about two pages in and I realized that this novel wouldn't fly at our school.

Becoming Chloe has two distinct parts; the first recounts the brutality of life on the streets for Jordan, a gay teenage runaway, and Chloe, a mentally disturbed and abused girl. The second details their cross-country search for beauty in the world. It is a quick read, but doesn't give the reader the answers that she wants, like what happened to Chloe in the past and what will they do once they have completed their journey to California.

There is one beautiful line on page 156: "Even if this was the only thing I ever did in my whole life, it would have been worth having a life just to do this." This inspiring quote will be what I take away from Catherine Ryan Hyde's otherwise tepid novel.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories

Caveat emptor.

I spied Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories in the window of a bookstore when I was back in the states. I was elated--I'm a massive Dahl fan and my students eat up everything he writes. As I was in a hurry, I made a note to add the book to our wish list.

Time passed and eventually someone donated the novel. I brought it home and began to read, slowly realizing this was a collection of fourteen short stories that Roald Dahl enjoyed, not wrote. Not only that, they were very old stories, written in complicated language, and they weren't even scary!

I added the book to the Dahl section of the library and have seen countless students pick it up, excited by the cover. After leafing through the pages, they sadly place it back on the shelf. I wonder if it is unfair to even have it there, tempting them.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Copper Sun

I wish that Sharon Draper would write about 50 more historical fiction young adult novels, all on topics that I want to explore. Copper Sun is an incredible novel about a brave girl’s experience of the Middle Passage and slavery.

Amari’s village is raided by slaver traders and her family is killed. This pivotal event sets her on a journey across the Atlantic Ocean to South Carolina. Part One of the novel describes Amari’s struggles to survive on this horrific journey. I appreciate that Draper chose to have Amari suffer in realistic ways: she is not spared from rape, she feels hopeless and suicidal, she has lost everything. It is important for readers to know that these events really occurred and Draper writes with finesse.

The second part of the novel focuses on Amari’s life as a slave at Derbyshire Farms. There is a lot of action and plot development which keeps the reader interested, as well as many shocking chapter endings. The chapters are very short, which allows the reader to feel accomplished and entices them to keep reading ‘one more chapter’ until the wee hours of the morning. Likewise, the narrative shifts between Amari and Polly, an indentured servant, gives the reader a window into the experiences of a poor white girl on a plantation.

Copper Sun is an excellent novel to bridge social studies and English curriculum. It builds an incredible amount of background knowledge in a fun and exciting way.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Lost and Found

Lost and Found is the first novel in the fifteen book Bluford Series. This series was created to provide high interest stories to lower level readers. It can be very frustrating to try and excite a struggling reader when the only book at her level is about talking kittens. The only way to become a better reader is to read more. When there are no books that excite students, they won’t read. The Bluford Series provides a plethora of storylines: from bullies to peer pressure to abuse to romance; it’s all covered. Students become addicted to this series and even my most unwilling readers are racing to the shelves to check another Bluford book off their list.

Lost and Found tells the story of Darcy Wills, a teen that is trying to hold her family together after her father has left and her younger sister has begun acting out. She believes that she has a stalker and doesn’t know how to deal with it. The plotlines are very predictable (I bet you know how this novel ends) and the writing is not very good, but the Bluford novels will be the first that I recommend to someone who claims he hates reading.

It is important to note that the series can be purchased for $1 per book directly from the Townshend Press website. In stores and online, they cost the same as regular books. I recommend buying two sets from the publishing company; these books are often “misplaced”!

Friday, March 12, 2010

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle starts out slowly and then builds to a series of shocks. Of all the novels I teach, it is the best at bringing students out of slouch position and to the edge of their seats.
Avi’s novel about a proper young lady’s high seas transition to a sailor is set in the 1830’s. For many readers, it is their first encounter with historical fiction. The words are challenging and the setting unfamiliar. There are a lot of undistinguishable characters and my students always want to give up. I have to remind them to trust me as a reader; I know what books they will love.

About a third of the way into the book, the plot picks up and Charlotte becomes more likeable. A series of tragedies gets the reader hooked and the students eventually spend every class minute that is not dedicated to reading the novel, begging to read the novel.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a great read aloud because it encourages predictions and opportunities to discuss how characters grow and change. I believe it is currently being made into a movie, so the time to read it with a class is now, before they already know all the plot twists.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are?

Who Do You Think You Are is an immensely rich collection of short stories, all about friends and enemies. I originally bought it when I was unable to find a Richard Peck story online and I am so happy I did.

In our reading and writing workshop classes, I like to use mentor short stories that express what we are focusing on, from character development to details to setting. There is an example for every teaching point in this collection.

"Priscilla and the Wimps" by Richard Peck is my favorite piece in the collection. I read this story to my students several times a year to illustrate different aspects of writing. The cliffhanger stuns them every.single.time. I love that.

"What Means Switch" by Gish Jen is a hilarious look at being different and trying to fit in. Students bang the tables with laughter when we read this story.

Sandra Cisneros' gem, "My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn", is a short example of what happens when the exact perfect word is chosen, every single word in a story.

Meanwhile, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?", by Joyce Carol Oates , is so utterly creepy that I had to research it on the internet and am still rattled by the story.

Reluctant and confident teenage readers will gain so much from Who Do You Think You Are? My teaching and library are so much richer because of it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Solid gold.

This is another novel that has never disappointed anyone to whom I've recommended it. When a student is reading Sherman Alexie's novel, she is hiding it in her lap during class, he is counting the minutes to Quiet Reading time, she is tired from reading it under the covers.

The story of Arnold Spirit, better known as Junior, captivates the reader with its humor, and then sucker punches with tragedy. Even though Junior is a Native American, lives on a reservation, and was born with water on the brain, he is instantly relatable. Junior has so many challenges in his life, from crushing poverty to racism to bullies, but he perseveres in a beautifully human way.

One thing that I truly love about this novel is that it doesn't follow the traditional story structure of having one sad event that the protagonist overcomes. Junior faces a series of tragedies, each seemingly worse than the last. The reader hopes that things will work out for Junior, although it is clear that his life will never be a fairy tale. The cautious optimism that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian creates is a gift. Read it now!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Just As Long As We're Together

I read Just As Long As We’re Together monthly when I was growing up. From the number of comments my friends make about Jeremy Dragon and the chartreuse coat and the Benjamin Moore poster, I know I am not the only one.

This is my favorite Judy Blume novel; the note-perfect story of the friendship between Stephanie, Rachel, and Alison. Each girl has her own issues: Stephanie’s parents are getting divorced and she copes with it by overeating. Rachel is a perfectionist who doesn’t fit in with her peers and is jealous of Stephanie’s friendship with Alison, the adopted daughter of celebrities. Blume is able to completely embody each character and make the reader empathize with their problems. So many times, my twelve year old self wished I was playing Spit with Alison or hanging out with Sadie Wishnik. Every drama of being thirteen is covered in this novel, reminding older readers how awful it can sometimes be.

I need to re-read this novel every year or so, under a blanket, eating Ritz crackers and peanut butter. It feels good to recapture the twelve year old me.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Patricia McCormick treads on haunting territory with Sold. This is the story of Lakshmi, a thirteen year old Nepalese girl who is sold into a brothel in India to support her family.

Even though it is written in prose, the harrowing experiences of Lakshmi’s daily life are clear. Every student who has read this book has asked me, “Is this real?” It is a difficult topic to broach, that there are sexual slaves in the world today of the same age as the students reading. It can galvanize great discussions, but may also be controversial to some families, which is important to consider before shelving this novel.

Still, I think Sold is a well-written and important book. The cover draws in the reader and the extremely readable text will have readers flying through the pages, hoping for a happy ending for Lakshmi. Each of my students puts this book down with a sigh, saying "That was a good book!"

To read an article with Patricia McCormick about this novel, click here.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Lightning Thief

The Lightning Thief is about to come out as a film, which makes me sad as an English teacher. Last year, The Lightning Thief was the cornerstone of our study of Greek mythology. I was able to introduce the Greek gods, teach some history, and teach some amazing myths, all as background to a really fun novel. I don’t like to teach novels that are movies that everyone has already seen, so in a way, it is the end of a really fun unit.

The plot surrounds Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon and a mortal woman, and his quest to retrieve Zeus’ lightning bolt. Author Rick Riordan is a teacher, and it shows. He uses age-appropriate vocabulary and mixes in so many myths that checking out his website is practically essential to be fully informed. I love that the Percy Jackson series excites reluctant readers about mythology—kids plow their way through this series and are very good about correcting all my minor mistakes about the gods. The Lightning Thief is a great way to teach about dream sequences and flashbacks in writing, as well as allusions. Plus, it is a series that has galvanized many teachers into creating excellent units that are available online.

Even if you aren’t a teacher, this is a novel worth reading. It is humorous and touching and clever, the kind of book I wish I had written. Riordan said that it began as telling myths to his son as a bedtime story, and you can really see the love behind it. This would be a fantastic story to read aloud with someone in your life. There is so much conversation that could come out of it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass engrossed me. It is a rare children’s book that has a strong message, challenging vocabulary, and an appeal to readers of all ages. When I started reading Philip Pullman’s novel, I could not put it down for anything! Suddenly, there was a lot more free reading time in English class and a lot fewer dinner plans made.

I love the way Pullman created his alternate version of our world. My favorite aspect is that every character has a daemon, an animal version of their soul that accompanies them everywhere. As a child, the daemon changes form but settles its shape as the person ages. Much of my non-reading time was spent thinking about what my loved ones’ daemons would be. I read an article in which Pullman stated that if you ask several people what animal represents your soul, eventually there will be a theme. In case you’re wondering, my soul is that of a bear cub! I’m okay with that.

As the “His Dark Materials” trilogy goes on, the storyline gets darker, more complex, and to be more of a commentary on religion. I ended up stopping halfway through the last novel. Still, The Golden Compass stands alone as a beautiful piece of fantasy fiction.