Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 in Review

2011 was one of the best years of my life as a reader. After eight years outside of the United States, I was overwhelmed by the amazing access to books that I have in South Carolina.
Here are a few of the numbers for the year:

125 books read

39 graphic novels

14 adult books (fiction and nonfiction)

5 books re-read

Reviewing the list of titles, I chose my favorite eleven (it’s my blog, that’s why) books of the year:

1. Divergent

2. Page By Paige

3. Daughter of Smoke and Bone

4. Wonderstruck

5. The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

6. Meanwhile

7. A Storm of Swords

8. The Summer I Turned Pretty

9. You Don’t Even Know Me

10. Tender Morsels

11. Sahara Special

I have about seven more months in the US, so I plan to take advantage of the books at my disposal. My new Kindle should help in that department, as well!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Anything But Typical

Books about autistic teens impact me like no others. I find them fascinating, heartbreaking, and incredibly important. When I saw Anything But Typical on the South Carolina Junior Book Award Nominee List, I rushed to the school library to check it out. What a gift of a book.

Told from the perspective of twelve-year-old Jason Blake, we get an insight into what it's like for him in a neurotypical world. Written in short segments, Jason describes his family who love him but can't understand his way of expressing love in return. His mother particularly breaks my heart, full of worry and fragile hope. By the end of the book, I was ready to write some fan fiction in which Jason is able to tell her how much he loves her.

Feeling out of sync with his family and full of problems at school, Jason's release is writing online. Author Nora Raleigh Baskin deftly explains why this outlet is so essential. When Jason develops a crush on his online friend, his anxiety is something to which all readers can relate. This experience, nerve-wracking for anyone, is especially frightening for Jason, who has been rejected by his peers. By sharing this aspect of Jason's life, Baskin makes him more relatable and hopefully inspires some empathy in middle school readers.

Get this book, it's wonderful.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Wordless Books for ESL Students

In one of the classes I'm observing while working towards my Master's degree, there is a student from Japan who speaks almost no English. I am really fortunate that my cooperating teacher is letting me spend the entire period working with him, trying to build his English skills. I always feel a special affinity for Japanese students, as it was the first country I taught in and Japanese people were amazingly kind to me. I will spend the rest of my life trying to repay that generosity.

One activity that the student and I are doing is reading wordless books together. Because he is so shy, I am still uncovering his vocabulary level. Asking him to tell me what he can about the story helps me make words lists for him and requires that he speaks as much as possible.

The first book we enjoyed was Zoom by Istvan Bavai. Named as one of the best children's books of 1995 by the New York Times, the story starts with close illustration of red spikes with yellow dots, reminiscent of a starfish. When you turn the page, you find that it is actually the top of a rooster's head, which then zooms out to children watching through a window, and so on until you are viewing the planet as a speck in the universe. It's a deep idea for a picture book, but also provides many opportunities for simple vocabulary practice. You can preview most of the illustrations on this website. Our school library does not have the sequel, Re-Zoom, so I will search that out at the local library. A funny note: there is a Spanish version of this wordless book. I guess the back cover is en espanol?

 Robot Dreams by Sara Varon features more of a narrative that we can explore. It tells of a year in the life of a dog who builds a robot as a friend, then has to leave him behind at the beach when he rusts there. In the months that follow, they dream of each other while having their own humorous adventures with other animals. This book is packed with opportunities to review vocabulary and for the reader to add details to the story. Most of my job during Robot Dreams was to say, "And then what?"

In addition to having an interesting story, the illustrations in this book are fantastic. They are simple enough as to not distract, but very entertaining. I found the color palette to be soothing to the reader, and loved that wavy lines around the illustrations signalled that the character was dreaming. You can preview the first few pages of the book on this website. Robot Dreams is a book that I will definitely be adding to my own classroom library; this strangely wonderful book is essential.

Monday, December 19, 2011

We Could Be Brothers

I'm eager to hear what my students think about this book, because I'm torn. Part of We Could Be Brothers is a classic high school story: Pacino and Robeson are boys from different worlds who meet in detention and discover they have a common enemy in Tariq.

The other side is a very clear message of empowerment by author Derrick Barnes. Every aspect of the novel is tailored to educate African American boys on their potential. The characters attend Alain Locke Middle School, Robeson's father runs Brand New Vision, an organization of powerful men who charge themselves with bettering the community, and Robeson is a champion martial artist. This is where my conflict lies. I completely believe in everything Barnes is trying to do, but wonder if the message is too heavy-handed. For me, it felt that way, but maybe it needs to be explicit for developing readers to get it. I'm excited for my students to read We Could Be Brothers so that we can have a frank discussion on Barnes' themes.

Am I being cynical? I'd prefer for my students to be inspired through a subtly well-written story, but anything that empowers them ultimately works for me.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Code Orange

Code Orange features my least favorite type of character: an overprivileged New York prep student. I was hoping for a lot of character growth, because at first, Mitty Blake is obnoxious and proudly ignorant. While he never becomes a person I'd like for a friend, he does get more interesting.

Mitty coasts easily through life, slacking on his schoolwork until he realizes that his report on an infectious disease is due. While researching smallpox, he comes across an envelope with two scabs, which he accidentally inhales. He continues traipsing around the city while the virus grows in his system; Caroline B. Cooney cleverly ends each chapter with a description of how the infection has developed in Mitty. Once he decides to let people know he may have contracted smallpox, Mitty ends up involving the FBI, terrorists, and his overachieving crush.

I can tell how I felt about a book by how quickly I review it. If I start writing immediately, it was a book that struck a cord with me. I kept putting off reviewing Code Orange, because I really wanted it to be better. It's a gripping plot idea, but the novel never lives up to its promise. While I walked away having learned a lot about smallpox, the numerous nonfiction texts being quoted would not appeal to most readers in my class. If I knew a reader who was particularly interested in diseases or wanted to be a doctor, I would recommend Code Orange. Otherwise, there are plenty of other books I'd suggest first.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is the most original idea for a book that I've ever come across. Chris Van Allsburg's picture book is only thirty-two pages, but manages to be one of the most inspiring writing books I've seen.

It begins with a letter from Van Allsburg, telling the story of a children's book publisher who was visited by the mysterious Harris Burdick. He shares fourteen drawings, with a caption and a title for the accompanying story. Harris Burdick was never heard from again. This story is enough to hook any reader before even seeing the captivating illustrations.

The illustrations and titles vary from creepy, enchanting, and mystical. All are thought-provoking and beg the reader to put pen to paper in order to tell the stories. For "A Strange Day in July" (right), the reader gets the line, "He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back." It is up to the reader to decide what would cause the stone to come back and where the story goes from there. Those familiar with Van Allsburg's books will be delighted by the artwork, which can almost seem like photographs in their intricate details.

I have had this book for one day and have already read through it three times, thinking of all the fun we will have in writing class with this masterpiece. There is a follow-up book, called The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, in which some of my favorite authors write their interpretations of the stories. I'd like to believe that I am able to hold out and rely on my imagination, but I've always been a sucker for spoilers, so I'll probably be on the hunt for this soon!

Friday, December 9, 2011


They say there's a reader for every book, unfortunately this book just didn't work for me.

In his own words, Kieren Morales is an "Irish-Mexican American. Werewolf-human. Texan. Son, brother, friend. Murder suspect." All of these descriptors make him someone I'd like to read about, but unfortunately Tantalize just didn't work for me.

This graphic novel tells the male side of the love story between Kieren and Quincie, his best friend and the protagonist of the novel this book accompanies. People who have read the novel will probably be more invested in their relationship, but those who are starting the series here don't have enough happy times with the couple to care about the trials they face.

My real issue was with the illustrations. While I prefer color in my graphic novels, I don't mind when the illustrations are engrossing. Unfortunately, the drawings in Tantalize are too rough and almost scribbly for my taste. The characters looked unattractive and it detracted from the storyline.

Fans of Cynthia Leitich Smith's series will probably like this book; I recommend others look elsewhere to meet their werewolf needs.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Landry News

Andrew Clements knows what it's like to be a teacher. Having taught at elementary, middle, and high schools has given him rich fodder for his novels. Frindle and The Landry News show remarkable insight into daily school life, humanizing the most unlikeable teaches and exploring the myriad relationships that occur in a school. All this, while writing at a low enough level that all students can enjoy his books.

The Landry News tells the story of Cara Landry, a born reporter who observes everything, including the worst in everyone. Her 5th grade teacher is Mr. Larson, a once-great teacher teacher who has slipped into lazily reading the paper while his students teach themselves. I found the description of Mr. Larson's classroom fascinating, "Each square inch of wall space and a good portion of the ceiling were covered with maps, old report covers, newspaper clippings, diagrammed sentences, cartoons, Halloween decorations, a cursive handwriting chart, quotations from the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence, and the complete Bill of Rights--a dizzying assortment of historical, grammatical, and literary information" (5). I would have loved to learn in that classroom! Cara creates her own newspaper, complaining about Mr. Larson's lack of teaching, which spurs a journalism unit that teaches the students about bureaucracy and threatens Mr. Larson's career.

My favorite aspect of The Landry News is the respect with which Clements treats his audience. He knows that developing readers deserve (and need) plots that make them think. My mind is filled with ways to incorporate his novels into the classroom: as summer reading for students entering the sixth grade, as an author study, or with other books to discuss the portrayal of adults and teachers in literature. As his novels are such quick reads, I will be checking out the rest of his oeuvre in one large chunk. Read this now!

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Underdogs

In the hipster romance “Garden State”, Natalie Portman talks about original moments in human history, and I’m pretty sure I lived one yesterday. I feel it is safe to say that no one else has ever spent four hours reading Mike Lupica’s The Underdogs while getting their hair straightened in a Korean salon in South Carolina. I’m not a sports fan, so I figured I would need to be strapped into a chair with chemicals on my brain to make me want to read a book about football. It turns out that wasn’t necessary; The Underdogs is fast-paced and spirited.

Twelve-year-old Will Tyler can fly when he’s playing football; he’s the fastest thing to ever take the field in Forbes, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, Forbes’ sneaker factory has closed and the town can no longer afford to sponsor a youth football league. Football is Will’s life, so he decides to take matters into his own hands and contact the CEO of New Balance to request sponsorship and regain some of the community’s pride. Once he has the money, he still has a long way to go in pulling together enough players, a coach, and his town.

The Underdogs is a feel-good story with a familiar and beloved plotline. The title tells the reader what they will get: lovable misfits who scrap together a team and make a play for the championship. There are very few plot twists that will surprise readers, but that does not make the novel any less fun. Sports fans will be taken with the action scenes, which set the reader in the middle of the field, running alongside Will and his friends.

The popularity of dystopian fiction and more novels that could be described as Recession Lit interests me. Books have always been a way for adolescents to cope with difficulties in their lives. The closing of the sneaker factory and Mr. Tyler’s underemployment will be relatable to many readers, making it an easy book to recommend to readers whose families are struggling economically.

One of the best things about The Underdogs is how it will appeal to developing readers. I know many adolescents who don’t consider themselves readers, but will devour this novel and then ask for more. The Underdogs is a gateway book that will hook kids and have them searching the shelves for more by Mike Lupica.

Read this and more of my reviews at Young Adult Books Central.