Friday, March 30, 2012


Orchards is a hefty free verse novel, both in pages (325) and theme (teenage suicide). Despite its weight, I read it in one day and loved it completely. Holly Thompson has crafted memorable characters and a unique setting for a YA novel.

The daughter of a Japanese mother and a Jewish father, Kana Goldberg is a member of a crew of eighth grade girls who are scattered after the suicide of a classmate. Kana is sent to live with her grandmother's family on a mikan (orange) farm in Japan. In a new culture, Kana has become the outsider and has time to dwell on the way her clique treated Ruth after she is seen talking with a boy that their leader likes.

The entire novel is written as Kana addressing Ruth, sorting through what could have been and how it has changed her. Kana's emotions are realistic: anger, shame, and regret are only a few that she cycles through. Through her emails with her friends, she realizes that everyone processes Ruth's death in their own way, but they are all forever affected:

"all of us complain
only a little

I think we will always complain
only a little

anything more
seeming like

after what happened
to you"

Having lived in Japan for a year, I love reading books that include Japanese culture. Holly Thompson has lived in Japan for over sixteen years and did extensive research into mikan farming. Reading Orchards was like stepping back into my days in Japan--the imagery had me tasting the food, smiling at the manners and respect shown to elders, and wishing I could attend the matsuri, summer festivals, again. Although Kana speaks Japanese and understands the culture more than I ever will, I could relate to her initial awkwardness as she tries to fit in. Like everything else in this novel, it felt authentic.

Orchards is a novel that will appeal to bicultural students, Japanophiles, readers who have lost a loved one, poetry fans, and anyone who has struggled to fit in...almost anyone could find something to love here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Darth Paper Strikes Back

I was desperate to read Darth Paper Strikes Back after finishing The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, but their was a major waiting list at my school's library. After hearing my complain about it, one of my sixth graders lent me his personal copy. I loved it just as much as the first book.

When Harvey creates his own origami creature named Darth Paper, he uses the powers of the dark side to get Dwight expelled from McQuarrie Middle School. Tommy and his friends create a second case file, this time to prove to the school board that Dwight should not be sent to the Correctional and Remediation Education Facility. Following the same format as the original book, Darth Paper explores the shifts in friendships which are very common in middle school. In the first book, Harvey is deeply entrenched as a member of the group, while Dwight is the strange outcast that they use for advice. By the time seventh grade begins, however, everyone is tired of Harvey's attitude and appreciate Dwight for the good person he is. It is when Harvey feels his popularity slipping that he takes drastic action. I witness the chess game that is adolescent friendship every day and author Tom Angleberger nailed it.

In fact, so much of these novels is spot-on that I tried to find out if Angleberger was ever a teacher. Results are inconclusive, but I think he must be a former teacher or married to one. The importance of the Standards of Learning tests is emphasized by everyone, even the seventh graders when they think it will skew in their favor. In an important moment, Tommy is momentarily distracted by a completed Rubik's cube, which is classic middle school attention span. And as much as he is the antagonist, Harvey's sarcastic comments crack me up more than anyone else.

At the heart of the book is a message about appreciating differences and championing the underdog. I love that Darth Paper manages to do this without being saccharine or condescending. The third book in the series will be published on May 15th, and I will be at the bookstore that day, eager to see which paper creature will be the next to win my heart.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Flying Beaver Brothers and The Evil Penguin Plan

Ace and Bub, also known as The Flying Beaver Brothers, are sports enthusiasts. They live a happy life on Beaver Island, surfing and napping, until they learn that evil penguins are planning to freeze the island. The penguins have headquarters in a giant sunken refrigerator and only they can stop them.

This first volume in the graphic novel series is fun and accessible. I read it with one of my ESOL students who has a very low English level, and he was able to have success with the book. Words like trophy, penguin, and competition were new to him at first, but the repetition and illustrations helped him master them quickly. Developing readers will feel the same sense of accomplishment. The pages have a good balance of text and illustrations, with some featuring wordless action.

Maxwell Eaton’s illustrations are simple and endearing. The beavers are among the cutest characters I’ve seen and they are at their most adorable while swimming through tunnels underwater. Fans of the Lunch Lady series will love this book.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

I'm an Org!

Inspired by YA Librarian Tales and Book Love, I am now the owner of a domain name. That's right, you're reading It's nice to feel official and the org makes it seem like it's more than just me running the show. Picture the behind-the-scenes warehouses in James Bond films and that's what it's like, now that I'm an org.

Feeling pretty spiffy!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Out of the Dust

I want to teach this book so that I know that people are reading it. I've avoided Out of the Dust for awhile, mostly because of the boring cover (I'm that girl) and that it won the Newbery Medal in 1998 and I don't usually love Newbery winners (I'm that girl, too.) When I started researching novels in verse, Karen Hesse's classic kept coming up. I tried it out and am so glad I did. Out of the Dust sticks with you.

Billie Jo Kelby and her family live in Oklahoma during the dust bowl years of the Great Depression. People are starving, farms are folding, and many are fleeing west to escape the poverty of the Dust Bowl. After three years without a strong crop, the Kelby's economic situation continues to deteriorate. When a horrific tragedy strikes (I gasped. Anyone who has read this book knows the scene I am talking about.), they are emotionally and physically destroyed.

Grit is the word that comes to mind. Billie Jo has the grit to continue on after her world has been shattered. Her bravery and resilience are moving; I wanted to scoop her up and comfort her. Grit also has a literal meaning in the novel, with dust infiltrating every aspect of their lives. I never thought about having to keep glasses and dishes turned over while setting the table, nor what it was like for students to take a test in a dust storm. Hesse's imagery works the dust into the reader's mind until they, like Billie Jo, just want to escape to a cleaner, happier place.

Out of the Dust is impossibly sad, which is why the free verse format works so well. The reader is able to move through the book at a quick enough pace that the events aren't too depressing. Plus, the spare writing is a perfect fit for the setting, flowery prose just wouldn't work on an Oklahoma farm where there are never enough hours in a day.

Billie Jo's story will remain with me and has given my understanding of the Great Depression a new, more personal, dimension.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous

If the new Common Core Standards are going to force me to teach more nonfiction, I hope I can use texts like How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous. This is probably the grossest book I've ever read, which is the ultimate compliment for adolescent readers.

Detailing the deaths of nineteen historical figures, Georgia Bragg has done meticulous research and added so many tidbits and facts that readers will spend hours gleefully sharing disgusting information. Kevin O'Malley's illustrations add a touch of humor and lighten the mood of the gruesome deaths.

My students are learning about the Tudor Dynasty, so the sections on Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were among my favorites. In addition to detailing his death (um, did you know his corpse exploded in its coffin?), it has a chart of King Henry's unlucky wives, as well as the amount of food eaten in one day by Henry and his court (including 15 swans and 3,000 pears), and things that weigh as much as Henry VIII (58,060 U.S. pennies). This is exactly the kind of information I want to know about historical figures.

I will be recommending this book widely in order to convince young readers that nonfiction books don't have to be boring.

Monday, March 19, 2012


Author Kirsten Hubbard and I could have some conversations. From reading Wanderlove, I can tell that she has traveled widely and on a budget. In my eight years of living abroad, I did my share of backpacking and also led semester-long experiential education trips abroad. We may have even crossed paths in Central America.

Wanderlove's main character, Bria, decides to go on a group tour of Guatemala when her boyfriend breaks her heart and derails their plans to attend art school together. As soon as she meets her group, full of unadventurous adults, she realizes she has made a mistake. A chance encounter with Starling and Rowan, effortlessly cool backpackers, leads to her ditching the group and learning what travel is really about. Along the way, she experiences romance, adventure, and self-acceptance.

Hubbard nails the backpacking lifestyle, from typical hostel antics to the posturing of 'trustafarians'--kids using their trust funds to support their bohemian lifestyle. I loved the characterization of Bria, someone who is aware that the dreadlocks, toe rings, and flowy clothes are costumes, but is still desperate to give them a try. Her excitement and self-consciousness make me remember why I loved leading students on trips; everything is thrilling and every day holds myriad possibilities.

The novel held some surprises for me:  plot twists that I didn't see coming and predictions that fell flat. Between this and Like Mandarin, I am officially a massive Kirsten Hubbard fan. Since the book is written as artistic Bria's travel diary, it is full of sketches that Hubbard drew. Where was I the day they were handing out talent? Get this book and be inspired to strap on a backpack and hit the road.

Nerd Camp

There's never been a better time to be a nerd. Computer geeks run the world, math rock is a thing, and even thick black glasses are cool. So a novel that celebrates all things nerdy is welcome, even better when it is genuinely funny.

Our hero is Gabe, a geeky ten-year-old who gets a stepbrother his age about a week before he heads off to the Summer Center for Gifted Achievement. Gabe is thrilled about both, but when he meets Zack, who surfs and spends most of his time on his iPhone, he begins to see himself through new eyes. True to his nature, he hypothesizes that he is not just a nerd who only has nerdy adventures, and decides to spend his time at camp working it out.

What won me over about Gabe, as well as his bunkmates Wesley and Nikhil, is their total enthusiasm for everything. As a teacher, I can't imagine anything better than a group of adolescents who are excited and curious about all the possibilities they are offered (although I did snort knowingly when a lice epidemic is announced and a student asks for the genus and species. I teach Gifted and Talented classes.) For example, the boys try to make their cabin cooler, so they decorate with the theme of music and sports. Of course, the end up with pictures of Beethoven, a treble and bass clef, and the official rules of badminton. It's one of those moments that here in the south, you would shake your head and say, "Bless."

That's the best part of Nerd Camp. Author Elissa Brent Weissman never denies the nerdiness of all the characters, but she always makes them more endearing than they are dorky. I'm happy that they have a safe place to love whatever it is you love, without fear of ridicule. We all deserve our own version of a nerd camp.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Surrender Tree

I learned so much about Cuba's history from the immensely accessible The Surrender Tree. I really did not know much at all, but Margarita Engle's free verse novel taught me and inspired me to learn more.

Based on the lives of historical figures Rosa La Bayamesa, her husband Jose Francisco Varona, a slavehunter known as Lieutenant Death, and fictional characters, the poems detail Cuba's war-filled years between 1850 - 1899. Over the course of these 50 years, Rosa and Lieutenant Death live parallel lives: she heals escaped slaves and injured soldiers with herbs and flowers, he hunts slaves, collecting their ears and always on the lookout to kill "the little witch", as he thinks of Rosa. Their hide-and-seek takes the reader into reconcentration camps, caves, and swamps, painting a picture of life in Cuba long before the Castro era, a time we don't learn about in the United States.

Engle is a gifted writer and her use of imagery is particularly affecting. I could feel the steamy heat of the jungle and smell the ajiaco stew. Each word is carefully selected and holds the reader in its grasp:

"...My greatest fear is of being useless,
so I pierce and drain infected wounds
with the thorns of bitter orange trees,
and I treat the sores of smallbox
with the juice of boiled yams.

I use the perfumed leaves
of bay rum trees
to mask the scent
of death."

Rosa is a heroine worth studying. Engle portrays her as brave, tireless, principled, and wise. She takes her role as a nurse seriously and will treat enemy soldiers with the same care that she treats the Cubans, often causing them to convert to her cause. I hope that Cuban-American girls are learning about this powerful cultural figure because she is the strongest role model I have come across in awhile.

Towards the end of the book, a young girl named Silvia is introduced and the interplay between Rosa and Lieutenant Death wanes. I wish that their narration could have continued, although I appreciate that Silvia represents the future, a character who will carry on Rosa's ideals.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. Please add it to your libraries and place it in as many hands as you can.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


This is a seriously sad children’s book. It’s beautiful, thought-provoking, and heartfelt, but melancholy is the prevailing mood for Breadcrumbs.

Hazel and Jack are fifth graders who have been best friends forever, throughout their difficult young lives. One day, Jack changes and stops speaking with Hazel. It could be that his heart has been turned to ice by a snow queen, or it could just be that he is growing up and apart from her. Hazel must go on a quest to get Jack back, and author Anne Ursu makes it possible to believe that the fairy tale journey into the cold is a metaphor for salvaging a broken friendship.

Hazel’s mission is trying and solitary. Along the way she encounters many strange characters that remind her of her beloved fairy tales. The allusions in Breadcrumbs come fast and furious—Ursu references The Red Shoes, The Little Match Girl, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, and countless more. This makes me wonder who the audience is for the novel. The characters are young, yet I wonder if people their age will like the story. For the most part, I did, enjoying the literary references, Ursu’s beautiful writing, and the sadness that pervades the novel. I don’t know that eleven-year-olds will feel similarly, especially at the end, which trails off, rather than ending definitively.

Breadcrumbs is popular, having been named Book of the Year by, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal. There are many things to love, from having an Indian protagonist, Erin McGuire’s gorgeous illustrations, and its thematic depth. Yet it just didn’t click completely for me. I’m in the minority here.

Monday, March 12, 2012


Pandemonium is the perfect name for Lauren Oliver's second entry into the Delirium series. While the first book had protagonist Lena slowly awakening to the fact that love should not be illegal, this novel has her paying dearly for having loved. Lena spends Pandemonium in a constant state of flight, unsure of who she can trust.

Pandemonium is another opportunity for Oliver to demonstrate her writing, which somehow manages to be both flowing and gripping. Confusing, I know, but it is a compliment. The tone of this novel is so different from Delirium. Lena is angry and strong, the Resistance movement is just as corrupt as the society they are protesting, and the action never lets up. There are many plot twists, all of which I predicted, but none of which I would have changed.

As much as I love warrior Lena and her adventures in the Wilds, my favorite scene involved her flashing back to a happy day with her best friend Hana. Oliver writes, "It seems impossibly, unbelievably long ago--when I could sit in a room with carpet, when we could spend days messing around, doing nothing in each other's company. I didn't realize then what a privilege that was: to be bored with your best friend; to have time to waste." This quote resonates deeply with me, as someone who has close friends all over the world and who doesn't always get to spend time with the people I love. It's a good reminder for me to take advantage of the time I have now with my friends and family in South Carolina.

The third book in the series, Requiem, comes out in February 2013. I can't believe I have to wait a year to find out what will happen next with Lena. Still, I am willing to be patient because I know beautiful writing can't be rushed.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Almost Forever

When you're six years old and your father is headed off to war, a year can seem like Almost Forever. Maria Testa's book of free verse gives us the perspective of an unnamed child, experiencing life without her father, who is serving as a doctor in the Vietnam War.

This book feels like a missed opportunity, particularly after having read All the Broken Pieces and Inside Out and Back Again, both verse novels which take place during this time period. Testa's narrator places her book at a disadvantage; her young age limits the emotions she can express and her understanding of the situation. At age six, she is not taking the emotional pulse of her family members, to the detriment of the reading experience.

Another issue is that the writing isn't beautiful enough. When I'm reading a book written in free verse, I always look for phrases that resonate with me, but Almost Forever really didn't have any. Take, for example, the following words, "I never cared much about the mail before, never cared much about the envelopes and packages that were never meant for me." Sounds like a normal sentence, right? Well, Testa spaces these words out on different lines and considers it poetic. Looking back through the book, most of the writing breaks down similarly.

The book is not without its redeeming qualities. The broadness of the writing makes it easy to discuss in the context of current events. The publishers clearly felt the same, updating the cover from the version I read (above left) to a more modern cover (right). It would be interesting to discuss how life is different for kids whose parents are currently deployed, as opposed to Testa's characters. It may inspire young readers to write their own verse poetry.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Between Shades of Gray

I've read many novels about WWII, but never anything about Lithuania. Sadly, until  now, the only thing I knew about Lithuania was that the Grateful Dead sponsored their Olympic basketball team (ignorance isn't pretty). Between Shades of Gray taught me a lot.

Author Ruta Sepetys details the experiences of fifteen-year-old Lina and her family during the Soviet invasion of Lithuania. Separated from her father, they are rounded up into cattle cars and transported to Siberia to work in camps reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps. They are treated brutally, starved, and expected to toil to death. It is tragic that this history is not more well known.

Sepetys' writing is beautiful--simple enough for young readers to understand, with descriptions that pull you in. Through Lina's eyes, I saw the Lithuanian countryside through a gap in the cattle car, watched loved ones slowly becoming gaunt, and felt the fear of snow piling up outside of an inadequate shelter. Lina is a talented artist, and her attempts to document her experiences and get her drawings to her father were especially touching.

One of my biggest takeaways from this novel is how amazing mothers are. A common occurrence in harrowing books is the mother sacrificing her needs for her children: giving them her food rations, feigning calmness so that they are not scared, risking her life for them. Lina's mother is my favorite character for all the small moments of grace she provides. As soon as I finished Between Shades of Gray, I called my mom and gave her some love.

Please read this amazing book; you will love it.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip

Peter Friedman's freshman year is not shaping up the way he had hoped. He always dreamed that he and his best friend, AJ, would be the young heroes of the high school baseball team, beloved by girls and worshipped by everyone else. Unfortunately, he ruins his pitching arm before the year even begins, and his grandfather is suddenly acting strange, giving Peter his expensive camera equipment and spacing out. Suddenly, Peter has to redefine himself, and he is fortunate to have Angelika, a cool girl from his photography class, to help him do it.

No one writes teenage boys like Jordan Sonnenblick. He is able to hook the most reluctant readers and prolific enough that by the time they've finished all his books, there is nothing reluctant about them. While baseball is the impetus for much of the drama, Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip should not be considered a sports book. It is so much more than that, and one that will appeal to male and female readers.

Grampa's decline into Alzheimer's is heartbreaking. Peter can't bear to lose his hero, so he keeps Grampa's secret, long after he knows that he shouldn't. Sadly, this seems to be Peter's defining quality, which makes him less endearing than Sonnenblick's previous protagonists. Still, denying a problem until it becomes worse is age-appropriate and will be relatable for readers.

Despite the heavy topics, Curveball is humorous, particularly when Peter adjusts to high school life. Although he hides the extent of his injury from AJ for too long, their friendship is fun and it will be easy for readers to project themselves onto their friendship, as well as Peter's relationship with Angelika. At times I wished that Peter could be more distinctive, but I see that having keeping him as a broad character will make him more appealing to a wider audience.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

I read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children with a spirit of gratitude: to have recovered from a cold, for a random 70 degree day in the winter, and for a novel that was completely different from any I have ever encountered before.

Author Ransom Riggs built his novel around a collection of old found photographs of vaguely creepy children with strange abilities. Among the forty-four photographs in the book are clothes being worn by an invisible boy, a young man holding a boulder over his head, and a young man casually wearing bees on his head, neck, and wrist. The ambiance of the book is significantly enhanced by these images.

When his grandfather dies, sixteen-year-old Jacob is left with a box of photographs and confusing last words. This leads him on a mission to uncover the truth about his grandfather’s past—did he really grow up on an island full of orphaned children with magical powers? He is unprepared for what he learns about himself and what he thought of as reality.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children had me guessing what would happen next; it is full of action and suspense. I can easily picture the reader who will love this novel—a bit offbeat and smart, and ready to solve a mystery. The ending makes a sequel a possibility, although its sweet ending is satisfying as it is.

I promise that the photos are not all as frightening as this one!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Planet Middle School

The best novels in verse use the form to say as much with the spaces as with the text. It’s a poetic form, after all, so writing in verse should be beautiful and poignant. Unfortunately, Planet Middle School is not one of the best novels in verse.
Joy is a tomboy who has spent most of her life playing basketball with her best friend, Jake. Once she enters middle school, everything starts to change. Her body is developing, her friends have different interests, and she suddenly can’t seem to focus on anything except a cute boy named Santiago.

This is all fairly standard for a coming of age novel, so the verse format should have provided the opportunity to do something different. Instead, Planet Middle School feels lazy, like it was just easier to write in verse than write a whole novel on the topic. I’m disappointed and don’t feel like this merits inclusion in my library.