Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Big Exciting Announcement

For the past two years I have been following the Cybils (Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards) and hoping to one day serve on the judging panel. 2011 is my year because I will be spending the next few months reading a zillion books as one of the panelists in the Graphic Novels category! I jumped up and down when I got the news.

To celebrate, I read two graphic novels this weekend. The first, Big Nate: In a Class by Himself, will look familiar to any Diary of a Wimpy Kid fans. At first I was upset that the format was exactly the same as the Wimpy Kid books, but then I saw an approving quote from WK author Jeff Kinney on the cover and learned that Lincoln Peirce has been publishing this comic strip for twenty years, so I jumped off my high horse and enjoyed the book.

While the layout of the books may be identical--narrative prose mixed with fun illustrations--the protagonists are very different. Greg is a bit of a lovable loser with a mean streak. Big Nate, on the other hand, is an extremely confident rebel with a good-boy heart. He lives with his single dad (hooray for diverse families!) and older sister, but spends most of the book at school with his pals. When he receives a fortune cookie stating, "Today you will surpass all others", he imagines all the amazing glory the day holds for him. Unfortunately, he spends the rest of the day collecting detention slips from his teachers. You can see where this is going.

One thing I love about adolescent readers is that when they find something they like, they devour it (me too, check the title). My students are huge fans of Big Nate, with this book ranking #4 in our school library. Lucky for them, there are four other books in the series, with more to follow.

Aimed at a younger audience, Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute is the first in a series of graphic novels detailing the adventures of a lunch lady who is also a superhero. When evil robots begin invading her school in the guise of substitute teachers, Lunch Lady using every weapon at her disposal to take them out. Lucky for readers who may be getting their first taste (heh) of puns, those weapons are fish-stick nunchucks, a spatucopter, and cannoli-oculars.

The panels and illustrations in Jarret J. Krosoczka's book are easy to follow and the color palette is yellow, gray, and white. Young and developing readers will enjoy the funny plot and witty details, as well as the emphasis on action. Because it is such a quick read, I recommend checking this book (and the five that follow it) out of the library.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Dirty Little Secrets

Dirty Little Secrets is a book that sits on your chest and feels heavy the entire time you are reading it, but in the best possible way. It's a strange description but exactly how I feel, having just finished the book a few minutes ago. This is a novel that will stay with me for a long time.

C.J. Omololu has written about a topic I've never seen covered in YA lit before: what it is like to grow up with a hoarder for a parent. Lucy's mom has filled their house with stacks of newspapers, clothing, old food, and garbage. While her older siblings managed to flee, Lucy is forced to lie and compartmentalize her life to hide her mother's secret. When Lucy begins to sift through the accumulated objects in their house, she has flashbacks to heartbreaking memories revolving around her life imprisoned by her mother's "stuff".

I loved the characterization in Dirty Little Secrets, particularly of Lucy and her mother. Parental addiction is a major theme in YA novels, but this particular addiction and Omololu's strong writing make it fresh. After becoming accustomed to Lucy's mother as a hoarder, I was shocked to learn that she was an oncology nurse. The fact that it wasn't just Lucy who was living a double life was poignant and shows that hoarding really is an addiction.

Lucy's efforts to maintain appearances hurt my heart. The work involved in hiding her mother's addiction is exhausting and gave me a lot to think about, as a teacher. After finishing the novel, I watched an episode of "Hoarders" online and saw that over three million people are afflicted with this disorder. At some point, I am going to have a student who is touched by hoarding and am so grateful that Dirty Little Secrets will be in my library.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

North of Beautiful

When I read that North of Beautiful was about a gorgeous girl with a port wine stain on her face, I was eager to read the novel. It's been on my "To Read" list for awhile, so I was happy to find it in our school library. I was even happier to find that this is a novel that far surpassed my already high expectations.

Terra's life is limited in a variety of ways: she is self conscious of her imperfect face, she works out constantly and excessively minds what she eats so that she can compensate for her face, and she and her family dodge the moods of her verbally abusive father. When she meets Jacob, a boy who doesn't fit any of the categories into which Terra has been boxed, her world expands, both literally and figuratively.

I was beyond thrilled that Jacob, the love interest in the novel, was Asian. It is a rare but welcome treat to have the caucasian protagonist fall in love with an Asian boy, especially one who is not stereotypical in any way, except that he is crushworthy. Bravo to author Justina Chen Headley for adding diversity to the YA world in an evenhanded and admirable way.

Headley's treatment of verbal abuse is among the most nuanced and sensitive I've ever encountered. I have read a lot of books about abusive parents, but few compare to the cold fear inspired by Mr. Cooper. As described by Headley, "...I could see how Karin had no idea how terrifying words spoken quietly could be. How words chosen precisely to wreak the maximum damage ticked like a bomb in your head, but exploded in your heart hours later, leaving you scarred and changed." This quote serves as a reminder to me that some throwaway comment that I make could resonate with a person (particularly a student) in a harmful way.

There are so many wonderful opportunities to think that are presented in this novel. There are not enough praise words for how I feel about it!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Please Ignore Vera Dietz

I stayed up so late last night so I could finish A.S. King's Please Ignore Vera Dietz. It was totally worth the dark circles and exhaustion today; this book was excellent. The prologue states, "To say my friend died is one thing. To say my friend screwed me over and then died five months later is another." With that, I was hooked and couldn't stop reading.

The friendship between Vera and Charlie is so engrossing because they both want to fight their family histories (teenage pregnancy and alcoholism for the former, physical abuse for the latter) but feel that it is their fate. For this reason, they can't admit that they really love each other, which hurts to witness. King's beautiful writing keeps the themes of fate and responsibility in the reader's mind throughout the novel, as characters wrestle with who they want to be, who they are expected to be, and who they really are.

From the start, we know that Charlie will die, but don't get the details until the end of the novel. Instead, the author drops grim hints about his downfall that made me repeat, "Oh my, what happened to this kid?" The truth is heartbreaking, for Vera and the reader. There are a lot of dark elements to the story, but it never feels hopeless. The narrative occasionally switches from Vera to her father, Charlie, and the local pagoda, which lightens the mood and gives us more insight into the mystery of Charlie's death.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz would be a great 'next step' for readers who loved Chris Crutcher's Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. Both novels feature outcast teenagers who protect the secrets of their only friends. It's too mature for my middle school readers (a part with a townsperson who gives Charlie trinkets is going to haunt me), but I will definitely recommend it to former students who appreciate stories of redemption and struggle.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Shakespeare Stealer

The Shakespeare Stealer is not the type of book I would usually pick up, but I'm very happy I did. It tells the story of Widge, an orphan growing up in Elizabethan England. One of his masters is a clergyman who teaches him an original form of shorthand that allows him to take notes that are indistinguishable to others. Once his skill is known, Widge is purchased and forced to try to steal William Shakespeare's newly-written Hamlet. Of course, nothing works out as easily as planned.

I was most impressed by author Gary Blackwood's knowledge of the time period. The details about the era are accurate and the language feels particularly authentic. This is even more of a feat considering the reading level for which it was written (my 6th grade students could easily manage this text) and that it never feels didactic or condescending.

The Shakespeare Stealer would be a great introduction to a unit on the Bard. Blackwood’s story gives readers an idea of how a Shakespearean company functioned, as well as a description of the Globe Theatre, its patrons, and where they live. Blackwood achieves a balance between suspense, action, and humor (let’s just say nobody wants to fall into a ditch in London in 1601). I’m happy to learn that this novel is the first in a trilogy, because I know that my students will get hooked and want to know more about what happens to the unlikely hero, Widge.

Friday, September 2, 2011


It's the first week of school and I'm celebrating with a week of Middle Grade reviews.

Frindle is pure joy. What started as Nick Allen's attempt to stall his language arts class leads to the creation of the word "frindle" for "pen". Suddenly, the word grows in popularity and sweeps the nation, changing the lives of Nick and his teacher, Mrs. Granger. 

I can't think of a better way to celebrate the end of the first week of school than with Nick and Mrs. Granger, both mischievous in their own ways. Nick is the class busybody and will be instantly relatable to similar students in my class. Hopefully, the superstrict Mrs. Granger won't be familiar to them! I really love stories about teachers that seem mean but are secretly benevolent. Mrs. Granger joins the ranks of my literary teacher heroes.

This would be a great book for a read-aloud but will also appeal to dormant readers. While the cover may skew younger, the plot would be enjoyable for readers through the eighth grade. I know that I will be very busy lending out Frindle this year.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Day of Tears

It's the first week of school and I'm celebrating with a week of Middle Grade reviews.

Day of Tears is essential historical fiction. This account of the biggest slave auction in history is written in the voices of all the parties involved. Julius Lester is able to take the subject of slavery and make it simple and understandable for middle school readers, while still being reverent.

Lester's writing choices were engrossing. During the slave auction, the names, duties, and prices of slaves were listed. Truthfully, I would usually skim through a list, but this had me riveted with tears in my eyes. He also takes the narrative into the future to have characters look back on the consequences of events. Student writers could learn so much about craft from Day of Tears; I will definitely include it in future units on historical fiction. Sometimes students struggle to engage with this genre, but I would be confident recommending this book to any middle schooler.