Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Today is the day my sixth graders have been awaiting: the release of Sisters, the release of Raina Telgemeier's smash graphic novel, Smile. That was the most widely read book in my classes this year, and they are lining up to find out what happens next in Raina's childhood.

Set during a road trip from California to Colorado, Sisters steps away from the drama of school and into the family tensions that come from being in a confined space. Most of the tension is between Raina and her nine-year-old sister, Amara. They argue about their differences, such as Amara's love of snakes, as well as their similarities (the colored pencils Raina refuses to share).

While most readers will be able to relate to the sibling rivalry, what caught my attention was how difficult parenting is. I would lose my mind if I had to spend a stormy road trip disciplining squabbling kids. There was less plot to this book than its successor, but I know that won't matter to my students. In their eyes, anything Telegemeier touches turns to gold.

The end of the book features photos of the sisters in situations from the novel. This makes me wonder if Telgemeier will continue telling the story of her life through graphic novels. I know hundreds of adolescents with their fingers crossed for that.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Serafina's Promise

Haiti holds a special place in my heart, even though I haven't been there yet. During my time in The Bahamas, I have met many Haitians and taught a unit on Haiti, our students raised funds for Haitian students, and I tutored a Haitian man in English. One of my dreams is to travel to this country and volunteer. In the meantime, I think one of my responsibilities as a teacher is to make sure my students are reading about Haiti and making connections. I wrote in the past that there needs to be more YA literature set in Haiti: Taste of Salt is good for middle school students, and In Darkness is appropriate for high school students. I've found the perfect middle grade novel in Ann E. Burg's Serafina's Promise.

Serafina is a young girl who dreams of being a doctor so that she can help others. She is determined that other families won't lose babies the way she lost her younger brother. Unfortunately, to be a doctor, you need to attend school. Serafina must work hard to attend school, in spite of the hunger and natural disasters that plague her life. I read the book with a sense of foreboding, knowing that the 2010 earthquake would happen at some point, and wondering how it would affect Serafina's dreams. Burg nicely balances the reality of the earthquake with some hope for the future. Her descriptions don't get more graphic than:

"Around me, people crawl
on hands and knees,
looking for those they love.
They scratch and paw
like hungry animals,
searching for food."

I'm happy that there is optimism in this story. Readers of this age group need that for their protagonists, and Haitians deserve a happy ending.

I loved Burg's All the Broken Pieces and hope she continues writing novels that take us inside the lives of children from around the world. Novels in verse are such an accessible way to learn about a new culture. They also tend to look hefty, so developing readers feel proud lugging them around, even if the actual type on the page is sparse. Burg provides ways to use Serafina in the classroom and how it relates to the Common Core. I'm adding this to my list of Caribbean Literature and will be recommending it to everyone.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Isla and the Happily Ever After

Magic. Perfection. Joy. And sadness that it is all over. That's what I am feeling right now.

I have a book reviewer confession: I almost never buy books.

I work at schools with amazing libraries and have access to ARCs, so it is rare that I actually buy a book. But I pre-ordered Isla and the Happily Ever After because I have been waiting years for the conclusion to Stephanie Perkins' series. And it was totally worth the wait. I didn't even change out of my pajamas today, I just read Isla and basked in it.

I could live forever in the world that Perkins has created, first in Anna and the French Kiss (my only review in Spanish) and then in Lola and the Boy Next Door. Her protagonists are such awesome girls and Perkins is the queen of creating lovable male characters. (Don't skip the message to her husband in the acknowledgments section--it had me tearing up!) Everything about the series is note perfect, and Perkins was kind enough to give readers closure with the characters from the other books.

The writing is wonderful throughout the novel, but there was one passage that stuck out to me. "After I pee, I return for my toothbrush and toothpaste. He follows me in, and we brush our teeth. we can't stop smiling at each other. I can't believe that adults get to do this every day. And I don't even mean sex, thought it's wonderful, but things like this. Brushing our teeth at the same sink. Do adults realize how lucky they are? Or do they forget that these small moments are actually small miracles? I don't want to ever forget." I love this reminder to appreciate the little beautiful aspects of our relationships. That part felt like a shout out to all of Perkins' adult readers. This book has more sex than either of the other books, so it skews to an older audience.

The plot is almost beside the point; this is an amazing romance between two beautiful characters. Do yourself a favor and read them in order. I want to start from the beginning all over again.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Ghost of Graylock

I need to build up my repertoire of scary books to recommend, because my students love them and I did, too, when I was in middle school. Unfortunately, I haven't expanded my collection much since then, falling back on Mary Downing Hahn books and the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series. I learned about author Dan Poblocki from Crunchings and Munchings, so set about reading his books.

Poblocki does something that I really appreciate in middle grade horror: there are actually ghosts and the story is actually scary. It jumps right into the story, with the first ghost appearing on page 30. There are many red herrings in the novel, to the point that I thought I had solved the mystery, but wasn't completely sure. (For the record, I was right, ha ha!) The occurrences in the novel are sure to keep students reading and guessing about the mystery.

I appreciated that there was the subtle inclusion of an LGBTQ couple, with the kids spending the summer with their Aunt Claire and her partner, Anna. As an added bonus, the cover sells itself--I won't even have to book talk something that is this appealing.

Something that irked me at first was that the story progressed over an extended period of time. There was a ghost and a ticking clock, but the characters ended up working shifts in their aunt's pie shop and going to ride go karts. The adult in me was stressed that they weren't focused on the mystery the entire time, but then I realized it was pretty realistic. Kids don't have complete control over their days and they have to do what adults tell them. It's probably something that young readers wouldn't even notice, but it slowed me down.

I have Poblocki's other books on hold at the library and look forward to enjoying them as well.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Girl from the Well

I've been reading a lot of scary books this summer and I'm a sucker for anything from Japan, so The Girl from the Well was made for me. If you enjoyed the movies "The Grudge" or "The Ring", you will love this horror story, based on the legend of Okiku, a peasant girl who was drowned in a well by her traitorous lord.

In the novel, the ghost has spent 300 years roaming the earth, making murderers pay for killing children. Tark, a boy with strange tattoos catches her eye and she is drawn to him and the evil ghost that is trapped inside him. She has to get him back to his mother's ancestral land in Japan before the spirit destroys him. Unfortunately, it's not easy to trust a terrifying ghost who looks like she drowned and spends her time hanging upside down from the ceiling.

I highly recommend this book, although you have to push through the first 30 pages. Even though they described Okiku's gruesome revenge on a killer, it wasn't gripping. Once Tark got introduced, I was all in and read the book in one afternoon. It takes awhile to get accustomed to the narration. Okiku speaks with the voice of someone who has been removed from people for a long time, so she often doesn't use names or the proper words for modern objects. There were a few grammar errors that I imagine were more due to the fact that I read an ARC from NetGalley than an author's choice.

There were scenes that genuinely scared me; anything that involves mirrors freaks me out and there were several frightening exorcisms. The callous ways that the murderers treat their victims was most disturbing (I'm thinking of a scene with wannabe yakuza high school boys). Mature eighth graders could handle the novel, but I would recommend it more for high school students and adults who like spooky YA fiction.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong

With only enough money to fund new uniforms for the cheerleading team or sending the Robotics Club to the national competition, the competition is fierce. Unfortunately for Charlie, his best friend is the head of the Robotics Club and his ex-girlfriend is the Captain of the cheerleaders. Luckily, they are able to find a way to work together to see if they can earn the money for both groups.

With its dedication to "all the girl geeks", I was a little concerned that the only female character that speaks in the first half of the book is a domineering cheerleading ex-girlfriend. Luckily, that fear was resolved with the introduction of Joanna, the most talented member of the Robotics Club. Joanna is true to her geeky heart, which makes her attractive to everyone, except some losers who think robotics isn't for girls.

This is a black and white graphic novel, which tend to be less popular than the full color books, at least with my students. Still, Faith Erin Hicks' artwork is lively and makes up for the lack of color. I think that after a few pages, my students won't even notice anymore (or maybe I'll have a competition to let them color it)! I'm talking about the book like I already have a copy of it for our classroom library, which will happen as soon as possible.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Room One

Andrew Clements is a gift to reading teachers. His books are accessible, easy to read, and didactic without being preachy. There's also something to be said for the covers, which are welcoming to readers in their similarities, and don't look too young, which lessens the embarrassment of reading them at an older age. Many of my ESL students are reading his novels in sixth grade and they proudly proclaim them as their favorite author.

Ted Hammond loves mysteries, but never thought he would find one in his isolated Nebraska town. One day, though, he sees a face in the window of an abandoned farm house. He solves the mystery of who it is fairly quickly, but then motivates to do something about it. What started as a mystery develops into a lesson about community, keeping promises, and the value of small towns.

While I enjoyed the insight into what it would be like to teach in a one-room school, my favorite aspect of Room One is that Ted is a genuinely good person. He takes promises seriously and believes in the values of the Boy Scouts. It's nice to have a strong role model to refer back to, especially when most of my students have read Clements' books at one time or another.   I wouldn't consider this a mystery, but rather some realistic fiction that shows the good things that can happen when you do the right thing.