Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

In the event you do not want to be spoiled, just know this.  I loved it.  Now, stop reading this review and go read the book!

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!!!


I finished Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games) a few days ago but needed to take some time to think about it before blogging. I think I am ready now!

I loved Mockingjay.  I know a lot of bloggers and readers were unhappy with the direction that Collins took the book in, I thought it was sheer perfection.  When we last left Katniss, she was the face of the revolution.  But what many readers seemed to forget was that she was chosen as the face of the revolution.  It wasn’t a choice she made independently.  I have always loved Katniss but I never saw her as a perfect hero.  She is flawed.  She is human.  She breaks and tries to heal.  She makes mistakes.  (I’m pretty sure Peeta and Gale can tell you all about those mistakes).

In Mockingjay, we meet Katniss in District 13.  For the first two books we have imagined District 13 as this utopia, a community that fled the Capital and and has been able to live secret, joyful lives.  You know, the kind full of butterflies and rainbows.  Guess what?  Turns out District 13 is no utopia!  While they aren’t the Capital, they are terrible in their own way.  And they have plans for Katniss- she will be their spokeswoman and the inspiration to the rebels.  They have plans to film promotional footage of her and air it in all the districts.  But it turns out that this is just more reality television.  She is scripted, she isn’t in real combat, and she hates it.  But when she does get pulled into the war, things aren’t as clear as they once seemed.

I’m not going to bother summarizing the rest of the book.  Just know that Mockingjay is different from the rest of the series.  There is not clear-cut good vs. bad here.  The lines are blurred and there is a lot grey area.  It’s difficult to figure out what side anyone is on; it’s difficult to figure out what side YOU, the reader are on!  While the first two books felt very character-driven, Mockingjay is driven solely by something else.  Character, setting, plot all rolled into one.  It’s war that drives everything.  And Mockingjay is real war.  People die. Good people die, for senseless reasons.  Because we view the events through Katniss’s eyes, the book is rushed at some points.  At other times, we miss things because she is injured or drugged (in the hospital).  It is confusing and overwhelming.  But I felt like I was right there with Katniss.

For those of you who want a happy ending you aren’t getting that here.  But what war ends with happiness?  Like real life, the war just ends.  And Katniss is broken.  Her family is broken.  We know she begins to heal, because there is an epilogue.  Unlike many other people, I enjoyed the epilogue.  I think it gives us just enough information.  We see that Katniss has grown up, that she is living her life and moving on.  But she still bears the scars of what happened to her.  She will never be the same person she was when she stepped up and took Prim’s place in the games.

Like I said, I LOVED the book.  I though Collins did a fantastic job and took Mockingjay in a direction that many people did not expect.  Because of this, she has some unhappy readers.  But I am a fan for life.

Thoughts?  Questions?  Comments?  I want to talk about this one!  Comment!

My favorite quote?  p. 379

“Are you preparing for another war, Plutarch?” I ask.

“Oh, not now.  Now we’re in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated,” he says. “But collective thinking is usually short-lived.  We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self destruction.  Although who knows?  Maybe this will be it, Katniss.”

What a scathing look at humanity.  Yet sadly true when you look at world history.

*purchased by me

Spaceheadz Blog Tour starring Jon Scieszka!

I am thrilled to be hosting Mr. Jon Scieszka today on his blog tour for his new middle grade book, SPHDZ Book #1! (Spaceheadz)!

Jon Scieszka is the first National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, named by the Library of Congress. He is the author of some of the best known and funniest books written for children including The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, The Time Warp Trio series and the Caldecott Honor Book The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales. He is the creator of the Trucktown series, of which Smash!Crash! was an NY Times bestseller for many weeks. Jon is a former elementary school teacher, and a avid promoter of literacy—particularly for boys. His website www.guyssread.com focuses on his national campaign. Jon lives with his family in Brooklyn, NY.  (For more information, check out this website.)

SPHDZ Book #1! is absolutely hysterical!  While it is aimed at younger readers, on the lower end of the middle grade spectrum, I still found myself laughing out loud.  Part comic book, part prose, it will be hard to tear this one out of young readers’ hands. The book is the perfect combination of an actual, physical book and pouring over a physical book with the technology that kids love.

Michael K. just started fifth grade at a new school. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the kids he seems to have made friends with apparently aren’t kids at all.At first, they just seemed super weird. Then, they announce that they are aliens. Real aliens who have invaded our planet in the form of school children and a hamster. They have a mission to complete: to convince 3,140,001 kids to BE SPHDZ. But with a hamster as their leader, “kids” who talk like walking advertisements, and Michael K as their first convert (and only convert), will the SPHDZ be able to keep their cover and pull off their assignment?

I highly recommend SPHDZ, especially to boy readers.  I gave my copy to my younger cousin and he was a little skeptical until he read the first page.  After laughing hysterically, he screamed across the room, “This book is funny and awesome!”  I’d say that is  a stamp of approval. :)

___________________________

Today, I am happy to announce that Jon Sciezka has created some exclusive content for TheReadingZone readers!  Rather than explain it, I’ll let Mr. Sciezcka take it away….

“Major Fluffy is definitely a Spaceheadz.  He has disguised himself as what he believes is the most powerful form on all Earth – a fifth grade class hamster.  But Major Fluffy knows more than you might think.  The only problem is that he usually speaks hamster . . . or dog . . . or cat . . . or duck . . . or baby . . . or whale . . . or ant . . . and maybe grape soda.”



Want to know more?  Major Fluffy also has a blog at http://majorfluffy.wordpress.com/ and tweets @majorfluffy.

*review copy courtesy of the publisher

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

For months I have been hearing buzz about Lauren Oliver’s debut novel, Before I Fall.  It never made it to the top of my TBR pile because I had so many middle grade books to read for my sixth graders, but the buzz convinced me to pick up an ARC of her second novel back at BEA.  So last week I grabbed my copy of Before I Fall and sat down to read it.  Boy am I glad I did! I can’t wait to booktalk Before I Fall to my new high school students.  Not only is it well-written but it is also thought-provoking, meaningful, and realistic.

Sam Kingston is popular.  She is pretty.  Her friends are pretty and popular.  Once upon a time, Sam was a loser, way back in middle school.  But now she isn’t.  Now she is one of the chosen few.  She is also pretty oblivious to how her actions and those of her friends affect her classmates.  Sam isn’t particularly likeable.  I didn’t even love her at the end of the book.  But she is realistic.  So are her friends.  Oliver has captured high school perfectly.  A lot of seniors are selfish, they do think the world revolves around them.  Being popular is important, and sometimes that means stepping on those around you, as Sam explains.

But everything changes for Sam when she hears, “a horrible, screeching sound—metal on metal, glass shattering, a car folding in two,”  and then everything turns to nothing.  The victim of a car crash, Sam is convinced she has died.  Until she wakes up again then next morning.  Only it is not the next morning.  It is the same day.  A cross between Mean Girls and Groundhog Day, Sam is forced to relive her last day over and over, changing her actions a little more each time.

Lauren Oliver takes a fascinating concept and turns it into a thought-provoking novel.  How does bullying affect our lives?  Directly? Indirectly?  How do our actions influence those around us?  Can we influence them consciously?  At first, Sam lives with reckless abandon, doing all the things she never had the nerve to do when she was alive.  But slowly she begins to realize that she is meant to do something else.

What I really liked about this book was how realistic is, despite the premise.  When Sam begins to relive her last day she doesn’t immediately transform into a perfect teen.  Instead, she rebels more than she ever did as a living teen- seducing her teacher, smoking pot, cheating on her boyfriend.  She slowly begins to realize that something has to change in order for her to move on completely.  But even at the very end of the book, she is not a perfect angel.  She does change and she matures, but she remains a teen at heart.  While some people might not appreciate this unwillingness to become perfect, I love it.  It is realistic.  And teens will identify with it.

Some people mentioned being apprehensive about reading 480 pages about the same day over and over, but the story is not redundant at all.  I found myself completely enthralled by the book, despite the fact that Sam was reliving the same day.  Each choice she makes impacts the outcome at the end of the night.

Highly, highly recommended.  Perfect for high school.

*my own copy

Nothing by Janne Teller

This year I will be reading Lord of the Flies with my seniors, so when I saw Janne Teller’s Nothing called a “Lord of the Flies for a new century”, I added it to my TBR pile. Last night I pulled it out after doing some planning and I read it straight through in one sitting. It is that good.

On the first day of 7th grade (Danish 7th grade, so closer to our 8th/9th grade), Pierre Anthon announces to his classmates that nothing matters and nothing has meaning. We all begin to die as soon as we are born, so there is no point to anything or everything, he says. He proceeds to climb a plum tree in his yard and verbally harass the rest of his class as they walk to and from school each day. While they try to ignore him, his words start to crack their insulated teenage world. As a group, they decide Pierre must be stopped. The solution, the conclude, is to prove that life does have meaning.

In order to prove meaning in life, the students begin collecting items that mean something to them. Each student demands a meaningful item from the next student in line. What starts out innocently enough quickly becomes more intense and eventually morbid. The students are falling down a slippery slope and falling out of control.

This is a haunting book. Philosophical, thought-provoking, and horrifying all at once, I read Nothing in one sitting. Not a word is wasted by Teller and I found myself gasping at points. She does not delve into explicit details, but in some ways her terse wording is even more horrifying. It is a perfect companion to Lord of the Flies and will be fantastic for class discussions. I’m considering it as a read aloud with my seniors.

While the characters are not particularly memorable individually, they are disturbing as a group. As the reader, we don’t need to know them as individuals. It is the mob mentality that drives the book and drives the action. The group is not even redeemable in my eyes, but I still could not put the book down. It is completely haunting. And while the students are 13/14 in the story, the book is more appropriate for older students and even adults.

I am shocked that I have not heard more about Nothing this year.  It is without a doubt one of the best books I have read this year.  It has classic written all over it.
*my own copy

Getting Back Into the Swing of Things…

How is it possible that school starts in 2 weeks?  I’ve been planning like crazy these last few days and I haven’t even been to my new classroom yet!

I spent a day last week as a teacher/leader at the Monarch Teacher Network workshop so I am feeling refreshed and rejuvenated for the new school year.  My summer isn’t complete until I’ve spent some time with my fellow colleagues in Monarchs Anonymous!

I still have some reading to do for new classes.  My senior class is pretty well-outlined at this point (thankfully!) so I am focusing on my freshman course this coming week.  It is really cutting into my reading time. ;)

Seriously, how is summer almost over?!  Are you ready?

Books I Brought On My Cruise!

E-books, that is!  Here is a sampling of some of the books I brought along on my iPad.  No guarantees which ones will be read;I like to have choices and pick whatever strikes me at the moment, :)

Listed in no particular order:

A chose a variety of genres because who knows what I will be in the mood for when the time comes!

    Hate List by Jennifer Brown

    Jennifer Brown’s Hate List has been on my radar for a while. I finally got a chance to read it a few weeks ago and WOW. Why did I not pick this book up months ago? Brown has woven a powerful and intricate story of the ramifications of a school shooting that left me in tears for the last third of the book. We are talking real tears, not just a little weepy, people. I finished reading the book the night before my wedding and stayed up way too late because I couldn’t stand to put it down until I finished the story.

    At the end of their junior year, Valerie’s boyfriend Nick did the unthinkable. He brought a gun to school, where he killed six students and a teacher. Valerie was hit in the leg by a bullet while trying to stop him. Nick took his own life before the shooting was over, leaving a fractured and fragile student body behind. He also left Valerie behind to answer for what he had done, and what everyone assumes she was involved in planning.

    Now, it’s time for school to begin again and Valerie’s therapist thinks it’s best for her to try and go back to school. Though she could transfer, she doesn’t want to force her younger brother and her parents to start over again because of her involvement with Nick so she heads back to school. But as the killer’s girlfriend, she isn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Her friends believe she knew Nick was planning to kill, her classmates blame her because she helped make the “Hate List” that Nick used to pick his victims, and even teachers and administrators have a hard time looking at her.

    I’ve read other books about school shootings but Hate List is at the top of the list.  Brown presents realistic characters and draws the social archetypes of high school perfectly.  She captures the reality of the social hierarchy in American high schools to a tee.  Each and every character is well-drawn, from the main characters to the smallest secondary character.  And the sign of true realism?  I didn’t know if I believed Valerie for a good portion of the book.  No one was innocent, but no one was to blame, either.  Hate List is the most accurate look at school violence that I have ever read.  And because this looks at the aftermath of the shooting, I saw a lot of the social interaction that happens in schools.  Kids do fall back into the same routine, and adults have a hard time admitting that.  Cliques exist and you won’t ever eradicate them because cliques are friends and we want our kids to have friends.  Hate List brought up a lot of issues and I think it would make a great book to read as a school, class, or book club.  This books BEGS to be talked about.  This is an extremely powerful story and I spent the last third of the book in absolute tears.

    Highly, highly recommended for teens and adults.

    *my own copy

    iPad, uPad- Why I, a Teacher, love my iPad

    I got the best birthday gift ever this year.  My husband bought me a 32GB wireless Apple iPad!  I was floored when I opened the box. Just a few days earlier I had finally started to consider getting an e-reader.  (I love my paper books.  I was very anti-e-reader. Still prefer my paper books).  I had watched many of my students start using e-readers in school and I was attracted to the ease of carrying more than one book when I travel.  I read very quickly and when I travel I need to bring a huge pile of books.  The airlines are not a big fan of that. I had decided on a Nook (which I still highly recommend!) so I did not expect to get an iPad!

    It’s been about two months now, and I know some people are interested in my thoughts.  I absolutely love, love, love my iPad. It’s been a life changer for me.  First, I use it a lot as an e-reader.  I still prefer to read paper and ink books, but the iPad is awfully convenient.  While I can’t add the books in my iPad to my classroom library (like I do with all my paper and ink books), it has been a great way to read more adult books.  I tend to buy all YA and middle grade books because I can use them in my classroom library.  Otherwise, I would have so many books that I would end up living in a house made of books, and that would probably be dangerous.  I can just see myself grabbing a book that catches my eye and just knocking everything down.  Bye bye kitchen!  Anyway, back on the subject- it’s great to have an e-reader because I can read adult books and not worry about what to do with them afterwards.

    I can also carry lots of books around at once. When I finish one book I can immediately begin another one.  This is very convenient.  As I said before, I read quickly and I hate getting stuck without another book after I finish one.  I also love that I can carry books around everywhere I go.  I find myself reading at the dog park, at lunch, waiting to meet up with friends, at the beach, in the car, and in waiting rooms.  I am reading even more than I already was.

    Now, the iPad isn’t perfect as an e-reader.  The biggest issue I have is the glare.  The screen has a big glare whenever I read outside.  I make sure I read in the shade, and I use the Apple iPad case (that protects the iPad) as a sort-of shield and that helps a lot.  I also changed the iPad’s settings so that the screen isn’t as bright and the background of the pages is a yellowish color instead of bright white.  I haven’t had a single situation where I haven’t been able to read due to glare.  It just takes some juggling sometimes.

    I don’t just use the iPad as an e-reader, though.  That’s the beauty of the iPad- you can do so much with it!  I find myself downloading new apps everyday.  I have an amazing Astronomy app that helps me locate constellations and planets.  I love downloading the newspaper and my pictures.  Most recently I downloaded Flipboard after hearing an interview with the developer on NPR.  Flipboard is a personalized magazine using your social networking contacts.  It takes links, photos, and updates that your friends post on Twitter and Facebook and puts them into a magazine layout.  It’s clean, crisp, and looks just like an issue of your favorite magazine.  I can’t recommend it enough!

    I have been doing some research into using the iPad in the classroom and I am brainstorming ways I might use it.  One idea I have is to use it during conferencing to take notes (with a stylus).  The iPad could serve as my notebook with notes uploaded every time I sync.  Do you have an iPad?  How do you use (or plan to use it) in the classroom?

    Pretty Little Liars Series (Books #1 and #2) by Sara Shepard

    I’ve had students begging me to read this series for the past few years.  For some reason, I never got around to it.  (Not sure how I feel about 6th graders reading it, but their parents bought them!)  When I saw that ABC Family was making the series into a TV show, I decided to read them this summer.  So far I have read the first two in the series, Pretty Little Liars and Pretty Little Liars #2: Flawless.  I have to admit- they are addicting!  No one would ever accuse them of being high-brow literature, but they are certainly fun.  Like a cross between Desperate Housewives, Mean Girls, Law & Order, The Real Housewives, and I Know What You Did Last Summer, they are pure fluff and brain candy.  Even a little trashy.  But I found myself furiously turning the pages!

    In the quiet suburb of Rosewood, Pennsylvania there are 5 best friends.  Ali, the ringleader, brought them all together in middle school.  Inseparable, they rule the school until suddenly Ali disappears.  One minute she is there, the next the police are mking pleas for her return on TV.  Hanna, Spencer, Aria, and Emily are in the midst of it all. Right before 7th grade begins, the girls are thrust into a manhunt.  But now the years have passed, Ali has never been found, and the girls have all drifted apart.

    Then, each girl starts receiving IMs, notes, and text messages from someone named “A”. This person knows secrets, things about each girl that no one else knows.  No one except Ali.  Ali, who they have each realized was manipulative and powerful, knew the deepest and darkest secret of every girl. So who could be sending these messages? And why are they threatening to spill the secrets?

    Drawn together again, the girls slowly begin to rebuild a very fragile friendship. While the story is fluff and a little over-the-top, I think a lot of teens (and adult women!) will recognize themselves and their own friends in story.  We all grow up and grow apart, while wishing it wasn’t happening.  Shepard’s characters are realistic and the more you read the more you begin to understand why they are the way they are. Each girl looks like she lives the perfect life, when the reality is very different.

    Like I said, these are very quick reads.  I flew through the first two books and look forward to finishing the series.  I can see why ABC Family picked this up a series- it makes for great TV.  (Appropriate for teens)

    *my own copy used for review

    My 40-Book Challenge

    I have received a lot of comments asking me about my 40-book challenge.  I plan to use it again this year, with a few modifications, for my freshmen and seniors.  I can’t take credit for this idea at all- that goes to the incomparable Donalyn Miller.  Donalyn, the “Book Whisperer” has a fantastic professional resource that every English teacher should own. In The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, Donalyn discusses her 40-book challenge, in which she challenges each student she teaches to read at least 40 books over the course of the school year.  I took this idea and made a few adaptations to use it in my classroom this past year.

    I drew up a document that had a table on it, with a variety of genres.  Looking back over my classes for the past few years, I decided how many books in each genre the students would be responsible for reading.  I want them to have choice but also wanted to guide them towards books they might not otherwise pick up.  The genre requirements are something I would probably change every year to best fit each class.  To give a few examples, I required 3 historical fiction books, 5 fantasy, 3 science-fiction, and so on.  The largest percentage were realistic fiction because it was the perennial favorite in 6th grade.  I also left 10 books open to free choice of any genre.  While the students moaned and groaned a bit, I think the genre requirements were very helpful.  They didn’t hold any students back but they also helped more reluctant readers because they provided guidance.

    Now, when I hand out the requirements there is a stunned silence in each period.  Most of my students freely admit that they may have read 3-4 books the previous year, so 40 books sounds like an insurmountable amount.  However, I just tell them that I have complete faith in them and I know they can do it.  If they ask what happens if they don’t read 40 books, I just tell them that isn’t an option.  And that as long as they are always reading when we read in class and they do their reading at home, they will be fine.  I do explain it a little differently to parents, though.  I tell them that even if a student doesn’t complete 40 books, the goal is to read more than they did the year before and to increase their skills.  More importantly, it increases their enjoyment of reading because the 40-book requirement helps them find something they do like!  But I ask the parents not to tell their kids that it’s “ok” not to read 40 books.  If they think they don’t have to, many won’t!  The challenge holds them to a high standard and I like that.

    Did all my students complete 40 books?  No.  Did they read a lot more than they did in the past and become more passionate readers?  Absolutely!

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