Three Middle Grade Books Dealing With Loss

I’ve never been drawn to middle grade books. I think by the time middle grade literature actually became good, I was an adult. It took me long enough to realize YA lit was fabulous, and as my friend Trisha says, I seem to not trust people’s opinions and have to experience stuff on my own…slowly.

Over the past year, I read three middle grade books that I really wanted to share. They all deal with loss to a certain degree that is age-appropriate and encourages discussion and critical thinking. Plus they are all beautifully written.

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D Schmidt

middle grade books

In January, we had Gary D Schmidt visit the junior high where I teach. All 8th and 9th graders read his book Orbiting Jupiter in preparation. Because I knew I would be teaching it, I read it in two sittings the summer before school started.

The story is told from 6th grader Jack’s point of view. His family takes in 8th grader Joseph as a foster kid. Joseph has had a sorted past: he has an abusive father, no mother, and somewhere out there, a daughter. He has been in and out of juvenile detention centers and it seems Jack’s family is his last shot.

Like I said, it’s a quick read, but a powerful one. I sat in our front yard when I was finishing it. As I sat in my bag chair under our front tree, tears streamed down my face as I closed the book. I walked into the house and my husband said, “Aw. Did you finish your book?” I nodded. “Did you come in the house so the neighbor kids playing Pokemon Go wouldn’t see you crying in the front yard?” I nodded again.

Orbiting Jupiter was easily my students’ favorite book of the school year, and they read a lot of book! We read three together as a class and they read a minimum of five more on their own, yet this one came up over and over again as we talked and discussed themes, characters, etc.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

middle grade booksIn November I went to the NCTE and ALAN conferences that were held in Atlanta, and received a TON of free YA and Middle Grade books. After finding The Thing About Jellyfish in my pile and hearing Ali Benjamin speak about writing about loss, I knew this one needed to be on my To Read pile.

My only regret is that I waited until summer to read it rather than reading it during the school year so I could book talk it; it sat untouched on my classroom library shelves all year.

That will change this year!

Told from 7th grader Suzy’s point of view, The Thing About Jellyfish is about the loss of friendship and the death of a classmate. When Suzy finds out her former best friend drowns, she decides to quit talking. She also becomes obsessed with jellyfish. The story is perfect for middle grade readers, but it’s also beautifully written prose that any age can find meaning in, like when Suzy thinks about how things are changing with her best friend:

I think about my hair, about the tangles I battle every morning. I have spent so many hours of my life trying to brush out tangles. But no matter how carefully I try to to pull the individual strands apart, they just get tighter and tighter. They cinch together in all the worst ways, until they are impossible to straighten out. Sometimes there is nothing to be done but to get out a pair of scissors and cut the knot right out.

But how do you cut out a knot that’s formed by people?

Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart

middle grade booksThis one was suggested to me by a student. It’s another one that I received at ALAN and although I hadn’t read it yet, I put it out with my LBGTQ display. It was quickly picked up and loved and recommended to me.

This is a dual narrative book and almost reads like both Lily and Dunkin are writing in a diary of sorts. Lily begins the book. She is a girl who was born with boy parts. She is going into the 8th grade and hoping the bullying and harassment stop this year. She is hoping her parents agree to getting her hormone blockers. She struggles with being Tim at school, but knowing she is really Lily.

Dunkin is the new kid in town. He and his mom moved down to Florida to live with his Grandma (who he calls Bubbie) after something happened with his dad who struggles with bipolar disorder. Dunkin’s real name is Norbert, but he hates that name. Dunkin also struggles with bipolar disorder, but doesn’t want anyone to know about it. He just wants to fit in for once and he thinks he has found the way to do that: by joining the basketball team. The problem is, if he wants to be popular and well-liked, he can’t be seen hanging out with Lily. They both have a secret and are not sure they can trust each other.

All three of these books are quick reads; I think I read each in just two or three days. But they each really stick with you. They all have an element of loss in the form of death, but they also deal with loss of friends and the naive childhood that is enjoyed before the turbulent middle school years.

I’m excited to be able to book talk these right off the bat when we start school in a few weeks.

 

Being a More Faithful Family

I would not say that Cortney and I have been excellent role models of what faithful families should look like. In fact, I recently joked with a few people that it seemed like we had given up church for Lent. We had a string of weekends with sick kids, other plans, or both that kept us from our regular Sunday 10am worship, and in turn kept the kids away from their Sunday morning Children in Worship centers.

We are usually regulars on Sunday, and if I am being truthful, I’ve left most of the “teaching” about our Christian faith to church: our pastors, the Children in Worship leaders, and the children’s message during church. I know that is not enough. That if we truly have this faith we say we have, it isn’t just on Sundays.

While I firmly believe our actions and how we treat the earth and who and what are in it are really the mark of our Christianity, talking about it is important too, especially with our kids so they know why we do what we do. As I do with most things, I turned to a book given to me by a close friend: Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments At Home by Traci Smith.

faithful families

The book is divided into three categories: Traditions, Ceremonies, and Spiritual Practices. I went through the entire book in two sittings and put post-it notes on everything I thought would be a good fit for our family. As you can see above, I used a LOT of post-it notes!

I marked the most practices in the Traditions section because I’m looking for ways to make our faith more a part of our every day lives. I like the way each practice is not just explained with a short narrative, but also is laid out in easy to follow steps. Then in the notes part, suggestions are given for making it more or less complex depending on the age of your children.

One thing we have always struggled with is consistently praying as a family. At dinner the boys are pretty good at leading our family prayers, but at night we tend to read books and then just go to sleep. I didn’t want to start the kids reciting memorized rhymes for prayers because I remember just flying through them as a kid and not really thinking about what they meant. I also tried it with Ed when he was little and he got hung up on the “if I die before I wake” and was freaked out for quite some time.

The first thing practice in the book suggests saying a blessing at bedtime. These can be as long as saying, “Eddie, may the peace of God, which is bigger than anything we understand, fill your heart and your mind, and may you know God’s love always. Amen.”  Or it can be as short and simple as “God Bless Alice. Amen.” It can even be part of the bedtime routine for kids to say “God Bless (family member).”

Practices in the book range from simple like a blessing, to more complex and deep ceremonies for things like pet loss, moving, and traumatic events in the news. There are small and large traditions for holidays such as Lent, Pentecost, Christmas, and even birthdays.

Another practice I want to put in place is to somehow mark the changing of the colors of the church calendar. We talk about this a lot in church and I would like to carry that into our lives as well: green for Common Time, purple for Advent and Lent, white for Christmas and Easter, and red for Pentecost. I could just be a small area–a shelf or table–but I think it would help us remember growing/learning, waiting, and celebrating. That there is a time and season for everything.

faithful families

I am really looking forward to putting some of these suggestions into practice to help our kids know why we give and take care of others–that it’s part of our faith to be the hands and feet of Jesus. That our number one reason for being is to love.

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This is not a sponsored post. The link is not an affiliate one. The book was a gift and I loved it, so I wrote about it.

What I Read in 2016

I had this lovely goal of writing something super poignant for my first post of 2017, but man. I am so busy that my brain doesn’t have a lot of space for poignant. So instead, I thought I would do my yearly “What I Read” post.

I took the GoodReads Challenge again, but I set my goal for 35 books. In 2015 I set my goal for 25, but ended up reading 35, so I figured I could do it again. I surpassed the goal handily by reading a total of 44 books! It helps that I love Young Adult Lit and some of those can be read super fast. In fact, it’s only January 6 and I’m already on my second book of the year.

What I Read

Anyway, this is the list of books I read last year in the order I read them. The ones in BOLD are the ones I recommend (although there were only a couple I was “meh” about, so go ahead and check them all out and let me know if you read them and what you think. The ones wit (YA) are young adult lit. (P) are novels that are written in verse/poetry. (N) are nonfiction.

  1. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson
  2. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (YA)
  3. Rush by Jonathan Friesen (YA)
  4. Looking for Alaska by John Green (YA)
  5. Somewhere Safe with Someone Good by Jan Karon
  6. Come Rain or Come Shine by Jan Karon
  7. A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (YA) (N)
  8. Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick  (YA)
  9. Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman (YA)
  10. The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle (YA) (P)
  11. My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson (YA)
  12. Far From Home by Na’ima B Robert (YA)
  13. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (YA)
  14. Letters for Scarlet by Julie C. Gardner
  15. The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore (N)
  16. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  17. Parrot in the Oven by Victor Martinez (YA)
  18. A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer (YA)
  19. Send Me Down a Miracle by Han Nolan (YA)
  20. What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman (YA)
  21. The Long Season of Rain by Helen S. Kim (YA)
  22. The Viscount of Maisons-Laffitte by Jennie Goutet
  23. Challenger Deep by Neil Shusterman (YA)
  24. Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want to Read and Why We Should Let Them (N)
  25. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (YA) (first in a trilogy)
  26. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  27. Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (N)
  28. Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
  29. Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt (YA)
  30. Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We’d Like Them to Be by Teri S. Lesesne (N)
  31. Godless by Pete Hautman (YA)
  32. Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (YA) (first in a trilogy)
  33. Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (N)
  34. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz (YA)
  35. Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King (YA)
  36. La Línea by Ann Jaramillo (YA)
  37. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (YA)
  38. Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy (YA)
  39. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (YA) (N) (P)
  40. Autobiography of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers (YA)
  41. Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (YA) (P)
  42. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina (YA)
  43. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  44. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (YA)

For Christmas this year, I was given a few gift certificates for books with explicit instructions to spend them on books I want to read for myself, and not necessarily something to add to my classroom library. It’s so hard for me to choose to spend my money on adult contemporary or nonfiction knowing that while I might enjoy it, it probably won’t interest my 8th graders enough to put in my classroom. But there are lots of books I want to read that fit these categories. So I did it. I went out and bought five books (and was gifted one) that are just for me. My goal is to roughly go every-other with YA books and adult or nonfiction books.

Of course there are still YA books I would LOVE to add to my classroom library, so if you are feeling generous, you can always check out my classroom library Wish List that the students and I create.

I set my 2017 GoodReads goal to 40 books. I realize maybe I should take a risk and set it at 45 since I read 44 this year, but I tend to be conservative in my risk-taking. Like I said, I’m already on book number two for the year. I have to read just over three books per month to make my goal. I think I can do it!

Tell me, what should I add to my 2017 To Read List?

The National Book Award Project: The Finalists

national book award

All the way back in June I started a project, spear-headed by Dr. Steven Bickmore, with a bunch of other educators: We read through all the National Book Award Finalists and Winners from the past twenty years. There were twenty of us–each assigned a year. I read the five books from 1996.

Each of us chose one book to move forward to the next “round”. We were then placed into brackets of five books and as a group we needed to choose which of those five would move to the final round.

The final round has four books. Our task was to read all four and vote for which one we think is the best of the best. I had already read Homeless Bird (2000 National Book Award Winner), but the next three were new to me.

Autobiography of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers (2005 National Book Award Finalist)

As is typical of Myers, this book starts out right in the action with the funeral of a teenager who was shot in a drive-by shooting. Jesse and his friends, CJ and Rise, are forced yet again to consider how quickly life can be taken away. Rise makes the comment that he believes this is why you have to live every day as if it’s special. All three boys grapple with how to do this, but Rise seems to take it to an extreme that Jesse can’t agree with. As Jesse tries to decide to stick by Rise–his blood brother–or follow his own intuition, he sketches Rise and the rest of what they experience. It’s a very honest look at what being a teen in Harlem is probably like.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (2012 National Book Award Winner)

Ten-year-old Hà, her three older brothers, and her mother are forced to leave Vietnam when the war reaches their home in Saigon in 1975. Hà has never met her father, who is MIA in the war–possibly somewhere in North Vietnam where communication has been cut off. The family journeys by ship to Alabama where they become refugees. Hà is forced to repeat the 4th grade even though she was at the top of her class in Vietnam because she doesn’t know English. What is most special about this book is that it is told in first-person verse covering a complete year: from Vietnamese New Year in 1975 to the same day in 1976.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (2014 National Book Award Winner)

Another book completely in verse, Jacqueline Woodson tells her autobiographical tale of growing up African American during the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and 70’s. Her life is split between two homes: one in South Carolina with her maternal grandparents and one in New York City with her mother. Her poems seamlessly weave her life story together in a way that the reader can actually feel. It’s beautiful writing.

Of the four books, I really liked Homeless Bird and Autobiography of My Dead Brother but I loved Inside Out and Back Again and Brown Girl Dreaming. I also felt all four books would be appealing and accessible to my students (all 8th grade). They were all well-written, though I think the three I described here were a little more literaturey (yes, I just made that up) than Homeless Bird. Or maybe it’s that Homeless Bird is about a culture different than the author’s.

In the end, Woodson’s poetry did more than just tell a story; it created an experience; therefore, it got my vote as the best National Book Award Winner of all time.

National Book Awards: The Next Bracket

national book awards

In June, I posted about a project that I am doing with a group of other educators. Dr. Steven Bickmore (you should go read his YA blog, by the way) gathered a bunch of us together to read all of the National Book Award winners and runners up since the award for YA turned twenty this year. We divided up the books by year (there are five books per year); my year was 1996 and I posted about those books here.

We each chose a “winner” from our year to move on to the next round. I chose A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer (a finalist in 1996; the winner that year being Parrot in the Oven by Victor Martinez).

From there we were put into groups of five to read each other’s picks and work together to nominate one from our group to move on. These are the next four books I read (in addition to A Girl Named Disaster):

Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan (2000 National Book Award Winner)

Maybe it’s my historical fiction kick, but I really loved this book. In fact, this is tied for me with A Girl Named Disaster to move on to the next round.

So what is the book about? Koly is only thirteen years old when her parents arrange a marriage for her. While an arranged marriage is typical in India, Koly’s takes a tragic turn and she is left to fend for herself in a large city. The book is a quick read and appeals to all levels. It’s set in India and asks the reader to wonder about family structures, cultures, and traditions while also addressing the idea that the individual does not have to fit a mold to be a happy part of society.

Godless by Pete Hautman (2004 National Book Award Winner)

While Homeless Bird was my favorite of the four new books I read, this was my least favorite. I wanted it to be my favorite. I wanted to fall into it and find a bit of myself in it. The book is narrated by teenager Jason Bock whose family is very Catholic. Jason identifies as a “agnostic-going-on-atheist”. His parents try to get him into the fold of religion by sending him to a class at church for teenagers to talk about issues. The class only solidifies Jason’s apathy toward organized religion. In a moment of boredom and, according to Jason, clarity, he decides to create his own religion–one that worships the town water tower.

I really wanted this book to push the envelope and dig into the questions many teens have about religion and God. I was one of those teens and I craved books that showed others feeling and questioning as I did. This book fell short and only seemed to graze the surface. I was disappointed.

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (2008 National Book Award Finalist)

This was another one that I loved. I almost put this as my vote to move on, but didn’t just because I think Homeless Bird appeals to a larger range of students than Chains does.

Chains takes place just as the Revolutionary War is about to begin. Isabel is a 13-year old slave in Rhode Island whose mistress dies. She and her sister are to be freed according to their mistresses will, but that does not happen and she is sold to a cruel New York City couple who side with the King and not with the American Revolution. Isabel finds herself befriending a slave boy who works for the Rebels and delivers messages and makes other dangerous errands that could get her beat…or worse.

This book was brilliant. It was long, and took a bit to get into, but the way Anderson wove both history and fiction together was flawless. Anderson has a follow up novel, Forge, and also a third, Ashes. I think students who love American History and have more reading stamina will fall in love with this series.

Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin (2012 National Book Award Finalist)

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction and what I do read is usually memoir, and I definitely don’t read books about science, war, or bombs, so I waited to read this one until the very last. Where Godless disappointed me, this one thrilled me. Bomb is written as a narrative of how the nuclear bomb was imagined, theorized, tested, and finally created. It also weaves in Russia’s attempts to steal the bomb using primary source quotes from American and Russian spies. It’s a real-life story of war and espionage. While I know what happens in the end–we make the bomb before he Germans and bomb Japan–I was still on the edge of my seat for the personal stories of the scientists who worked on the bomb…and those who leaked information to the Russians. The photos throughout were also a wonderful addition to the book. I want a separate category for books like this, but I feel like maybe this is one of a kind.

Overall I think the books I can see my 8th graders picking up and reading on their own are Homeless Bird and A Girl Named Disaster. Those are tied for me and I would be happy to move either on to the next round!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

Five Summer Reads

five summer reads

So far this summer I have read quite the eclectic array of books. I had friends publish books, so I wanted to read those. I also wanted to read some more adult fiction since I spend a good deal of time reading YA lit, however I do love YA lit, so I have still be reading lots of that too. While I have read a LOT of books since school got out (around a dozen or so), these five stuck out as ones I wanted to pass along in case you needed something to read by the pool, beach, or on the couch while the Detroit Tigers are losing.

Letters for Scarlet by Julie C Gardner 

I have a confession. When my friends write a book I get very nervous to read it. I mean, what if I don’t like it? How will I tell them? Thankfully this has never actually happened to me. Letters for Scarlet is written by my long-time blogging friend, Julie. I have read her blog for years and marveled at her ability to write. To be able to hold her book in my hands made me giggle happily.

The book is one I would totally choose to read on my own. Corie Harper is a late-twenties English teacher. She and her husband, Tuck are trying to get pregnant, but can’t. One day, Corie gets a letter from herself–one she wrote senior year of high school when she was best friends with Tuck and Scarlet. Corie and Tuck had a falling out with Scarlet and hadn’t heard from her since. Until Scarlet’s mom wants Corie to find her and deliver the letter.

Scarlet, on the other hand, does not want to be found. She has a great job and finds out she is pregnant. She thinks having the baby would be a terrible idea.

Both women are running from the memories of one particular night their senior year. The book gives you bits and pieces that just keep you turning pages to find out what happened…and if Scarlet will keep the baby…and if Corie and Tuck will make their marriage work.

All The Light We Cannot See  by Anthony Doerr

I love historical fiction because I feel like I am getting a glimpse of life from a different time in a way no history class could ever teach me.  All the Light We Cannot See does this so beautifully. The story is engaging, sure, but the writing!  The writing captured me and just would not let go in the best kind of way.

The novel is really two stories that wrap around into one. Marie-Laure lives with her grandfather in Paris near the Museum of Natural History. At age six, she goes completely blind, and he builds her small models of Paris and it’s roads so she can have a 3D map of sorts to learn her way around. When the Nazis capture Paris, they are forced to run away to the walled city of Saint-Malo to live with a reclusive uncle. Marie-Laure is unaware that they have carried something extremely valuable and dangerous with them.

Werner is an orphan who lives in an orphanage in a mining town in Germany. He is brilliant at building and fixing radios. The Nazi party catches wind of this and recruits him into the Hitler Youth. Eventually Werner finds himself in the basement of a building in Saint-Malo trying to fix some equipment. His story is about to meet Marie-Laure’s…or has it already?

The Viscount of Maisons-Laffitte by Jennie Goutet

Jennie is another one of my very wonderful blogging friends. I’d already read (and loved) her memoir, but this was my first time reading her fiction. As usual, I was nervous I would not like it, especially since this one was being touted as a romance. Romance is not what I would pick up, but it’s summer and I love Jennie and I thought, “what the heck? I’ll give it a go!”

I am so glad I did! This book is not what I would think of when I think of a typical romance…or maybe I have the wrong idea of a typical romance? Chastity is a single mother and high school English teacher in France. One of her students is the son of Viscount Charles Jean Anne de Brase. Now, don’t let not knowing what a viscount is get in your way of reading this one. I know next to nothing about France, and I was able to figure it all out with context clues. Jennie’s writing is accessible to anyone who wants to read it!

Chastity is unimpressed with the Viscount’s off-putting personality when she asks to meet with him about his son’s academic performance. She has pretty much written him off as a total rude snob, when her ex-boyfriend–straight from prison for drugs–shows back up and wants to spend time with their son. An accident involving their son throws the Viscount further into Chastity’s life than she could have imagined.

Challenger Deep by Neil Shusterman

This book may be my new favorite YA read. Having dual narrators is hot right now, but Schusterman takes that to a different level by having the narrator always be Caden Bosch, but from different states of mental health and awareness. Sometimes he is first-person narrating from the reality of his family and friends, other times it’s from aboard a ship with a deranged Captain and a talking parrot who both give him direction. Is he hallucinating? Is this a different world he has created for himself? Does he have another personality? Other times he falls into second person narration when he seems the most disconnected from reality. His ship world and the “real” world are connected, but you have to keep reading to find out how.

This might be the most beautifully tragic journey into and through mental illness that I have ever read.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Anything in the genres of paranormal or fantasy are a big stretch for me. In fact, I have never read Harry Potter (Don’t shoot!).  But I had A) heard this was very good and B) let myself get intrigued by the real photos that were used. I flipped to the back of the book and learned via the interview with Randsom Riggs that he found all the photos first and would write little stories to go with them. I found this a fascinating way to jump start a novel.

Jacob, a sixteen-year-old, finds himself traveling to a remote island off the coast of Wales in search of some family history. He finds, instead, and abandoned house that used to be Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. After searching some more, he finds that maybe these children were more than just strange…and maybe, somehow, they are still alive even though it is said they were all killed in a bomb attack during WWII.

Just like with Stephen King novels, I found myself drawn to how real Riggs made everything seem before introducing the paranormal/fantasy elements. I was already drawn in and invested in the characters before what would normally turn me off occurred. I was already hooked! I look forward to the next in the series (that I will have to borrow from my own classroom library!).

So what have you read so far this summer? Anything I should add to my list?

How They Read Now: The ’96 National Book Award Winners

National Book Award

Over the past month, I have been busy reading five books that I normally would not have picked up on my own. This year marks twenty years of the National Book Award and this winter I joined a group of colleagues and book lovers to go back and read those award-winning YA books. There are twenty of us participating–each taking a year of winners. Each year has five novels. Each reader is tasked with choosing the one book from their year to move on to the next bracket, with the idea that we choose ONE book from the past twenty years that we all feel is the BEST of all the National Book Award Winners.  I chose 1996 for a few reasons.

I am at that age where YA novels were sub par when I was the target audience for YA literature. My mom would make a weekly trip to the library in the summer and come home with stacks of books from their tiny section with young people as the protagonist. I read a lot of terribly written books over those summers. The YA scene didn’t vastly improve until after I had gotten my job teaching high school English. Coming of age with shoddy writing about gender stereotypes and predictable plots made me want to revisit what judges deemed exceptional back then.

The books I read:

Parrot in The Oven: Mi Vida by Victor Martinez

I read this one in grad school for an adolescent lit class circa 2004. I remember being blown away that this sort of literature existed for young people since everything we read was extremely different than the tales of summer romances and back-stabbing best friends that I had access to. Since it had been more than a decade, I re-read the book for this project. I was sure this would be my pick for the best.

Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida is told from the point of view of 14-year-old Manny Hernandez who lives with his sisters, his brother, and his parents the barrio in California. The writing was beautiful. Martinez creates lovely vignettes for each chapter painting each scene with similes like when he describes the pepper plants he and his older brother are going to pick from to earn extra money: “…gesturing down at some limp branches leaning away from the road, as if trying to lift their roots and hustle away from the passing traffic” (10). The way he describes what the sky looks like above the pepper field, “clouds boiling like water on the horizon” not only appeal to the reader’s visual sense, but also reminds us that it is so blisteringly hot that even the clouds feel it (13).

While the writing was lovely, the plot was underwhelming. Manny’s family has issues and he is deciding whether or not to join a gang. At the time of publication, the race wars in California had tensions across the entire country running high. Not many authors had so eloquently written about the Latino experience from the eyes of a Latino youth, so it is not surprising that the plot coupled with poetic prose, won an award twenty-years ago. However if I were to hand this book to my middle school students now, I don’t think they would be as blown away after reading the works of authors like Benjamin Alire Saenz and Margarita Engle.

What Jamie Saw by Carolyn Coman

After reading reviews of this one, I was looking forward to something ground-breaking. What Jamie Saw read more like what I remember 90’s YA lit reading like: potential that is just not realized. The plot is that Jamie witnesses his mom’s boyfriend do something mean to his younger sister. Mom and Jamie and the baby leave. They are afraid of the ex-boyfriend. The problem is that the plot falls short. Other than mentioning something–domestic abuse–that probably wasn’t mentioned much then, it really stops there with just mentioning it. Since Jamie is just a little kid, the language is simplistic and we are left to infer what conversations his mother is having when she asks him to play outside or tend to his baby sister.

In the end, the book felt like an after school special, but with even less drama. Definitely did not seem award-winning to me.

Send Me Down a Miracle by Han Nolan

This may have been my least favorite of all five books. At least with What Jamie Saw I was interested in the plot even if it did turn out to be too simple for my taste. Send Me Down a Miracle had better writing, but the plot was pretty terrible, as was the characterization.

Charity is supposedly a 14-year old who lives with her younger sister, her dad, who is the preacher in a super small Southern town. Her mom is gone to a birdcage convention and later we find out she may or may not be coming back. A stranger–an artist from New York–comes to town one day to work on her art. She announces she will be living closed from society for a month. When she comes out she claims to have seen Jesus sitting on a chair in her house.

First of all, Charity seems way younger and naive than any 14-year old I have ever met. In fact, she is somewhat unbelievable as a 14-year old. Her father reminds me of the dad in Footloose, but less of a fully developed character. The most interesting characters to me where Adrienne (the artist) and Charity’s mom, both of whom are flat and undeveloped. In the beginning I thought Adrienne was going to be the star of the book when Charity describes her entrance: “Then in walked Adrienne into our tidy home, looking like some wild jungle woman with fat, frizzed-out hair, rings on her toes, and this long, brightly colored skirt that was practically see-through.” But no.

The entire plot of the town going crazy for a “Jesus Chair” was just poorly executed, in my opinion.

The Long Season of Rain by Helen Kim

This was the last book I had to read and it was hard to find. When it showed up to my house I took one look at the book cover and groaned. I thought for sure I would be bored to tears. I was pleasantly surprised.

The Long Season of Rain takes place in South Korea in the 1960’s. It starts during the rainy season, Changma, while school is out for recess. The story is told from 11-year-old Junehee’s point of view. She is the second of four daughters and lives with her parents and her paternal grandmother. One day her grandmother brings home a boy her age who was orphaned in a mudslide. His presence brings out family secrets and tensions between her mother and father.

I will admit that historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and I hadn’t read any historical YA lit about Korea before, so even though I thought the book would bore me, I was wrong. The writing was lovely and wove Korean words easily with English in a way that was not confusing to the reader, but brought a richer sense of tradition and culture. Kim also does a good job of weaving the traditions of a conservative Korean family into the plot. They do not stand out, but rather enhance the story and push the motives of the characters.

I would classify this as a fairly typical bildungsroman because Junehee “comes of age” as she loses her innocence of her parents’ relationship and family workings. This was my runner-up pick.

A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer

As you may have already guessed, A Girl Named Disaster is my pick for the best of the 1996 National Book Award Winners. Like The Long Season of Rain, it falls under the historical YA fiction heading. At first, I wasn’t so sure about it since I have recently read two other YA books set in Africa, but this one blows both of those away too.

Nhamo is 11-years old living in a traditional village in Mozambique where she doesn’t fit in. Her mother was killed by a leopard when she was a baby, and her father took off before she was born. Culture places daughters with their father’s family, but Nhamo is brought up by her maternal side. After sickness plagues her village, it is decided that she should be married off to a terrible man to bring health and luck back to the village. Nhamo decides it’s time to find her father’s family who are supposedly in Zimbabwe.

Her year-long adventure is like a cross between the hero’s journey and a bildungsroman. She definitely “comes of age” during her travels, but it almost exactly follows the typical “hero’s journey” elements as well. Of all the books this is the one that not only stuck with me after I was done reading, but I found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t reading it. It was a book I stayed up late to finish because I needed to know what would happen. That alone makes it the clear front-runner.

The writing was beautifully descriptive as well. One of the qualities of a truly good book–especially world literature–is when the author can make the cultures and traditions come alive and make sense and weave them into the plot of the book. Farmer does that impeccably in A Girl Named Disaster.

I look forward to reading the winners from the 2012, 2008, 2004, and 2000 groups so we can decide on one to push through to the final brackets! I’ll keep you posted!

Six World YA Lit Books You Should Read NOW

worldYAlit

It’s been awhile since I wrote about what I’ve been reading, which is actually funny because I have been reading more than I ever have before. In fact, I am on book 22 for the school year! Crazy!

Anyway, in the last month or so, I read six Young Adult Lit books that fall under the category of “world literature” and “historical fiction” because my 8th grade classes would be choosing between them for their final class book of the school year. Each of my five classes has a “book club” centered around each of these books. So far, it’s a wonderful experience, and I think the fact that the book are so darn good is has a big part of that.

I really love historical fiction, but I admit I hadn’t read much YA historical fiction until now. And of course reading six titles, probably qualifies as binging on it, but I am Ok with that. I highly recommend all of these titles to anyone 13 and over, so let’s get into the books…

My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson 

Based on stories friends and family have told her, Edwardon bases her book in Alaska in the 1960’s when public schools were unavailable to the majority of children who didn’t live in a main city. Before 1976, students who wanted to attend high school had to travel hundreds of miles to boarding schools. In My Name is Not Easy, Luke (whose real name is not really Luke, but something too difficult for white speakers to pronounce) and his brothers–along with other children including Chickie, Amiq, Junior, and Sonny–are sent to Sacred Heart School where they realize that the students–Eskimo like them, Native American (Indian), and white–segregate themselves in the lunch room almost as if some sort of war is going on. The staff at Sacred Heart forbid use of native language and push to assimilate the children to a white, Catholic culture, but the students main goal is just to survive school and get back to their families.

I not only loved all of the characters in this book, but I knew many of my students would identify with having a name and culture that society may not understand. Many of my students may feel that they have to push their own culture behind them at school.

The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle

Engle tells the story of Cuba’s struggle for independence through poetry through the eyes of characters in the middle of the action, mainly Rosa–known to some as a witch for her knowledge of holistic healing with herbs. The story begins with her childhood learning the different powers of flowers and plants, and it follows her as she becomes a nurse to those injured–from both sides–during Cuba’s fight against the Spanish empire. The setting is mainly near the concentration camps where former Cuban slaves were sent. While the poems are mostly from Rosa’s point of view, some are also from the voice of Lieutenant Death, a slave hunter who has a particular vengeance for capturing Rosa. The character of Rosa is based on Rosa Castellanos, an historical heroine known as “la bayamesa”.

This book was both beautiful and devestating. I had forgotten home much I love to read narrative poetry, and how quickly the actual reading goes. The imagery and  just sensations this book oozes are wonderful and terrifying. I went back and re-read some of my favorites. This book is in English, but a Spanish version is also included. Many of my students are hungry to read in their native tongue and lots have family in Cuba. I knew this would be appealing to those kids.

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

This is book is a dual narrative about Salva–one of the Sudanese Lost Boys–and Nya. Salva’s true story begins when he is eleven years old in 1985. Salva is separated from his family when fighting comes to his village in Southern Sudan. He has to walk for days in hope to find his family. He struggles to find food and people. He ends up walking for seven years before ending up in a refugee camp. Nya is a fictional character whose story begins in 2008 when she is also eleven years old. She has to walk to a pond that is two hours away twice a day to provide fresh water for her family. Her story emphasizes the lack of clean water in Sudan and the importance of family. In the end, Salva and Nya’s stories cross making a very important push for Salva’s cause of bringing clean water to South Sudan.

This was the first book of the six I read and I remember closing it and thinking, “these books are going to leave me emotionally drained.” I was right. Reading Salva and Nya’s stories was like going on these walks with them. And although I knew Salva survived to create the Water For South Sudan project, I kept thinking, “this is it. He can’t survive this.” I knew this book would appeal to the widest range of students, and since its the shortest, easiest read many of my reluctant readers chose it and are loving it.

Climbing The Stairs by Padma Venkatraman

Vidya is fifteen and dreams of going to college. But she lives in British-occupied India during World War II. Her family is loving and supportive and fairly liberal, encouraging her to be what she wants to be. However tragedy strikes and they are forced to live with ultra-conservative relatives who believe women should remain uneducated, serve men, and wait around to be married to a good family. Vidya is miserable, but she secretly breaks the rules and ventures upstairs to her grandfather’s library to read books she is not supposed to even touch. Here she meets Raman who treats her as an equal. When her brother leaves unexpectedly, Vidya is suddenly forced to think about the political situation in India and what she can do to hold on and make her dreams reality.

This is totally a “girl power” book. Venkatraman bases her characters on family members who have told her stories of growing up in India during this time period, and I was excited to see some of my strongest girls chose this book, and have already commented that they are totally loving it!

Far From Home by Na’ima B Robert

This was the last book I read of the six and I admit to needing to take a break from reading after this one. For one, I had binge-read six historical fictions in less than four weeks. Secondly this one made me think and I just needed the time to reflect before diving into something new.

Part One of Far From Home is Tariro’s story.  She is fourteen years old, lives in Zimbabwe on her ancestral grounds near the baobab tree that she was born under. Her dad is the chief, she is in love with the brave and handsome Nhamo–things couldn’t be better. Then white settlers arrive and violently and tragically drive her and her family out of their home into new areas zoned specifically for the blacks.

Part Two is Katie’s story and takes place twenty-five years later. Katie is also fourteen and lives on a farm in Zimbabwe near the baobab tree. She loves her family, her exclusive boarding school, and her home. Then disaster strikes when the second War for Liberation occurs and natives begin to reclaim their land. She is forced to leave the only hone she has ever known and go back to London with her family.

It was hard for me to feel sorry for Katie at first. Her relatives had been the ones to drive the natives off their land! But as I read, I understood the complexity of it. Katie, herself, had not been involved in the relocation. This home was where she was born and raised. It’s all she knew. Plus as the entire story unfolds she learns about white privilege and humanity.

While it is worlds away from us, there are definite connections with today’s society here in the United States. It’s a more difficult, longer read, so only a few of my higher reading level students are tackling this one, but so far they are enjoying it and I am enjoying the conversations that are coming out of it.

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

This one affected me the most out of all the books. This is the true story of Arn, a survivor from the Cambodia Civil War during the 1970’s. He was eleven years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded his village, killing the upper-class and educated and separating the rest of the people into work camps. Arn was sent to a work camp that was also where they took prisoners and slaughtered them. He was forced to work with almost no food or sleep and witness the horrific murder of many people–some of whom he knew. If the kids reacted, they were also killed. Arn eventually volunteers to become a musician for the propaganda-like revolutionary songs the Khmer Rouge has them play. Later, when the Vietnamese invade to help the people of Cambodia, Arn is forced to join the Khmer Rouge as a child soldier.

I had to keep reminding myself that this story is true, and that Arn does survive and make it to the United States because I kept expecting him to die. Reading this from the lens of a mother and teacher was hard. I found myself putting the book down several times because the imagery was so horrifying. I knew my students would be engrossed in a book about a kid close to their own age having to survive experiences that were too terrible to even imagine. I was right.

All six of these books are about real historical events, many of which we don’t learn about in school. And if we do, it is only briefly covered in a textbook which dates and a few facts. These books humanize the wars and struggles so many children had to endure.

Have you read any of these? Do you have any suggestions to add to this list? (because I am always open to adding more to my To Read pile!)

38 before 38

In thirty-nine days I will be turning 38.

Over the weekend, I mentioned how fun it would be to receive 38 books for my classroom library in honor of turning 38. I shared my Amazon Wishlist and yesterday, two books showed up.

38 before 38

You guys know just how to make me smile.

So why not go for it, right? Let’s add 38 books to my classroom library!

All you have to do is go to my Wish List on Amazon. Many, many books my students put on there are less than $10 each. (Did you know most of the books are requests directly from my students? They are! Some are also added by me because I know my students will love them). It’s a LONG list.

If you purchase one off the list, it will get sent directly to me! You may choose to donate anonymously, or you can leave us a message to tell us where it came from. I will be posting pictures here on my 38th birthday on March 27.

I just realized that this kind of party–a book party–has GOT to be the best birthday party EVER. Plus it’s the kind I can share with my students!

Speaking of my students, did you know I post over at The Educator’s Room regularly? Check out my posts about why Reading Logs have to go and how I use Reader’s Notebooks with my middle school students. I also have a post on Writers Who Care about my writing process and how procrastination is a very large, important part of it.

By the way, thanks for being awesome.

Now…let’s read!

What I Read: 2015

Somebody (I don’t remember who anymore, sorry!) asked me for a post of all the books I read in 2015. Since I’m on Goodreads, I like to do the yearly challenge. Last year I set my goal at 25 books. I figured a couple a month was a fair goal with a new baby and all. As you can see, I surpassed that goal; I read 35 books!

I credit my students and our Reading Workshop. Since I have told my students that reading matters, and that when something matters, you find time to do it, I have made a commitment to reading every day. Usually I do it after the kids are in bed, but sometimes, if I’m not conferencing with my students, I will read my book when they have their reading time.  In fact, because of this I am already on my second book of 2016!

what i read

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

This is a look back at the books I read in 2015, in order that I read them. I am too lazy to link to all of them, by the way, but I know you all know how to use the search function on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I put the MUST READs  in bold if you need some to add to your to read list (although to be fair, there is not a book on here I would say “meh” to. They are all recommendations, really. Just get them all, but read the ones in bold first). The books with a * are Young Adult Lit.

  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (nonfiction)
  • The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr (nonfiction)
  • The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
  • Gone Girl by Jillian Flynn
  • Apron Strings by Mary Morony
  • Open Boxes by Christine Organ (nonfiction)
  • Jeneration X by Jen Lancaster (nonfiction)
  • The Shakespeare Conspiracy by Jeffery Hunter McQuain
  • The Potty Mouth at The Table by Laurie Notaro (nonfiction)
  • From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler*
  • Butter by Erin Jade Lange*
  • All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven*
  • Paper Towns by John Green*
  • Me, Earl, and The Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews*
  • The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller (nonfiction)
  • The Chosen by Chiam Potok*
  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart*
  • We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen*
  • Landline by Rainbow Rowell
  • Me Before You by Jo Jo Moyes
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (nonfictionish)
  • Write Like This by Kelly Gallagher (nonfiction)
  • Mechanically Inclined by Jeff Anderson (nonfiction)
  • Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher*
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio*
  • George by Alex Gino*
  • Jerk, California by Jonathan Friesen*
  • Both of Me by Jonathan Friesen*
  • Stand Off by Andrew Smith*
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan*
  • Fightball: Dying of Suck by Kris Wehrmeister (nonfiction)

This year I set my goal at 40. I think I can do it if I keep up the momentum that I set for myself in 2015.

Another thing I started doing this year is writing in a Reader’s Journal. I want my students to do this, so I model it by doing it myself. I have my notebook available in the classroom for students to flip through to see examples. They also like to flip through it for book recommendations. I admit I love reading their notebooks for this same reason. My To Read List grows as I talk to my students and read their thoughts about their books!

Knowing my students are looking to me as a model reader helps keep me reading. I try to read a mixture of Young Adult Literature and “regular” fiction/literature, just as I try to read a variety of fiction and nonfiction. That is part of my modeling for students too. Sometimes they get stuck on a genre and I want to show them there is awesome stuff across genres.

My other book goal for 2016 is to increase my classroom library by 100 more books. I added just under that (82 books) in 2015, so I think I can hit that goal this year. Right now my records show that I have 928 titles, and if I can surpass 1000 by the end of the year? Well, I will be ecstatic! To think that in the spring of 2014 I only had 104 books is crazy!

If you want to help, I keep a Wish List on Amazon of books that my students request as well as books I read about that I know my students will enjoy (I read a lot of new release and award lists).

Now tell me…what are you reading? What do you want to read? What should I read?

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