Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

When Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King won a Printz Honor back in January, I was mad at myself because it was on my TBR-pile and I hadn’t picked it up yet. So I reshuffled the pile and made sure I got to it that week. Boy, am I glad I did!  A worthy-winner, it’s the perfect combination of literary and teen appeal.

Vera Dietz would really like to be invisible.  She is perfectly content going through life without anyone noticing her.  But since the death of her ex-best friend Charlie, that’s been a lot harder to do.  See, Vera knows what happened to Charlie that night.  But can she bring herself to clear his name?  Can she forgive him enough to do that? Part mystery, part coming-of-age, all amazing- this is a book you must read.  No summary can do it justice.

I really loved how King crafted Please Ignore Vera Dietz.  The story is told from a variety of perspectives- the living, the dead, even inanimate objects.  Everything weaves together into a web of intrigue, keeping the reader on the edge of their seat.  At the same time, the mystery is not overbearing.

Teens will love Vera and I think most will identify with her in some way. She is sarcastic, quirky, angry, smart, full of love, at times full of hate, and  just… real.  She jumps off the page and it feels like she is telling you her story while sitting next to you.   You can’t help but root for her (and her dad, whom I loved).  I even found myself rooting for Charlie by the end, despite his numerous issues.

A worthy book of the Printz sticker.  Get this one in the hands of your high school readers ASAP!

*review copy courtesy of publisher

E-readers in Their Bookbags (and Purses, and Gym Bags, and Lockers)

Over the past two years, I have seen more of my students carrying e-readers, so the most recent NYTimes article  “E-Readers Catch Younger Eyes and Go in Backpacks” did not surprise me.  Last year, as a sixth grade teacher, I had 1-2 students in each class who asked permission to use their e-readers during independent reading (Kindles and Nooks).  They always caused a buzz the first time they came in, with other students (and even teachers!) crowding around, oohing and ahhing.  After that, they were just another format in the classroom.

This year in high school, I started the year with about 6% of my class using e-readers (mostly Kindles).  After Christmas vacation, I had an even larger percentage using Kindles, iPads, and Nooks.  I think I am up to around 10-12% of my class using e-readers.  I do notice more of my students reading the classics offered for free download, but that could also be a result of my 40 Book Reading Challenge, which requires that they read 3 canon classics.  However, the e-readers make it easier for my students to access the classics.  And this might be crazy, but I also think my students download the classics because a lot of them lack covers or consist of solid color covers.  There is not “judging a book by its cover” because it doesn’t really have one.  Thus, they go into the book without any preconceived notions about it being boring.  Not for nothing, but so many of the classics have atrocious covers that do not attract modern teen readers.  E-readers take that out of the equation!

I am also seeing them read new books, downloading recommendations from friends and books that I booktalk in class.  They also pass the e-readers around, letting friends borrow them to read books.

I’m still a holdout.  I use my iPad to carry books on vacation, but otherwise I stick to paper copies.  I can’t put e-copies in my classroom library.  :)  However, I am a fan of anything that gets kids reading, so keep buying your kids those e-readers!  And publishers, make your newest YA and middle grade titles available as e-books.  If you sell it, they will buy it!

 

Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray won’t be available in stores until March 22nd, but I want to make sure it is on your radar.  Preorder your copy today, because this is a book you do not want to miss.  It’s a heart-wrenching book about a part of history I am ashamed to admit I knew nothing about. Absolutely fantastic. It’s also a debut novel, which just stuns me.

The story chronicles a Lithuanian family’s deportation by the Soviets during World War II and I could not put it down.  It’s making the rounds in my classroom now and getting rave reviews from my students.  Set in 1941, it reads like a memoir.  I am ashamed to admit that I had no idea about any of the history that Sepetys focuses on in the book.  When Stalin decided to annex Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and parts of Finland, he gathered all possible dissenters, had them labeled thieves and prostitutes, and sentenced them to 25 years hard labor in Siberia.  Fifteen-year old Lina’s father is one of these dissenters and their entire family is shipped to Siberia in cattle cars, with no idea where they are going or why.  Their father is separated from them, and Lina uses her love of art to stay connected to him.

This book will open your eyes.  It will break your heart.  It will also send your heart soaring.  Lina is strong and full of life, and her struggles to understand what is going on around her, to understand how humanity can act this way, will tear you apart.  Sepetys is a gifted writer, and I was flagging quote after quote.  We’d been trying to touch the sky from the bottom of the ocean. I realized that if we boosted one another, maybe we’d get a little closer.” (quote taken from ARC).  Gorgeous, right?  That is only a small sample of the gift Rupa Sepetys has given us with this story.  She describe the hardships endured by these people, in gruesome and heart-breaking detail, yet she also highlights their strength of spirit and the love that blooms in their hearts, despite their situation.

Harrowing, heartbreaking, and important.  This is a must-read.  I have read many WWII and Holocaust novels in my time, and Between Shades of Gray needs to be on the canon list.  The Soviet genocide of the Baltic states has been left out of history books for far too long.  Rupa Sepetys has made an important contribution to YA literature (and it also has strong crossover appeal for the adult market).  Highly recommended for teen and adult readers.

*ARC received as a gift from another reader.

Learning to Take Risks- Jumping into Literary Analysis With My Freshman

A few weeks ago, I participated in the English Companion Ning‘s Webstitute “Work with Me”. (By the way, if you teach English and are not yet a member of the Ning, get yourself over there ASAP and sign up. It is free and full of ideas, networking, and just plain fun.) The best session in the webstitute, for me, was Penny Kittle’s “Craft Analysis”.  This year, I have been struggling to get my freshman to take risks in their writing.  I teach at a math, science, and technology magnet-like school and all of my students are brilliant.  However, many of them are very analytical and black-and-white when it comes to writing.  They tend to write a lot of plot summary and avoid any type of analysis.  I figured out that they were afraid of being wrong and losing points, but nothing I tried was working- they were still regurgitating plot and not analyzing and thinking on their own.

Lately, I have also been reading a lot about our students’ deficits with close, deeper reading.  (Too Dumb for Complex Texts?)  Colleges have been lamenting that students are unable to read complex texts and end up in remedial courses.  I want to make sure that my tech-driven students are readers who are ready for the rigors of the rest of high school and college.  I have spent weeks (maybe even months!) brainstorming ways to bring this to the forefront in my classroom, too.

Then I participated in Penny’s portion of the webstitute.  She shared a craft analysis project that she did with her students and I was immediately inspired.  It was exactly what I had been trying to come up with, but had been unable to pull together in any type of organized manner.  Penny was kind enough to share her handouts and I immediately downloaded them.  Over the past few weeks I have been working on tweaking the project for my particular students while also working through the project myself, in order to model it for them.  I am rereading Judy Blundell’s National Book Award winner, What I Saw And How I Lied. I’ve storyboarded about half the book while also writing my thoughts, noticings, and questions. It’s really made me work hard and notice Blundell’s craft moves, things that didn’t jump put at me on my first-draft reading. I was so excited to share this with my students and see what they came up. This past week, we started the project.

I am so thrilled with what is happening in my classroom right now!  We started with storyboarding earlier this week and it really clicked with my kids.  While they were hesitant at first (rolling eyes, mumbling about how it was for little kids), it was fascinating to watch them storyboard William Maxwell’s “Love” and then share their pages with the class.  Not one page looked like any other student’s page.  They all thought differently and displayed their ideas differently.  It was so cool to see them standing at the document camera and explaining their thinking, engaging each other. Later in the week, one of my students met me at lunch for some writing tips/help and he told me that storyboarding is really helping him because, “it’s making me stop and think a lot, and when I think about the story it’s easier to have ideas about it. Then I don’t have to just write what it’s about.”

Right now, each student should be working on storyboarding the book(s) they chose to reread.  I had each student respond to an assignment on Edmodo telling me what book they would be analyzing.  They picked some great ones!  Examples include The Book Thief, The Shadow Children series, Between Shades of Grey, The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Thief, Impulse, Paper Towns, The Hunger Games, And Then There Were None, Ender’s Game, Twelfth Night, Of Mice and Men, The Outsiders, Thirteen Reasons Why, North of Beautiful, and so many more great books!

Next week, I will have them working on the project in-class one day, sharing their craft noticings with other readers and comparing their books.  I am dying to know what they are coming up with and I can’t wait to see their storyboard notebooks.  I will be sure to share their progress here!  By the first week in March, each student will produce for me a 2-page paper analyzing the author’s craft and sharing their analysis with me.  Absolutely no plot summary is allowed!  They will use their text notes/storyboarding to draft the paper, along with any notes they take from their peer discussions.  They will share drafts with each other on Google Docs/typewith.me, assisting one another.  Spending the next four weeks doing this will hopefully help them to become better risk-takers in their writing.  I am so looking forward to the results!

When You Reach Me Winner!

102 people entered the drawing for the signed copy of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. I plugged the numbers into the Random Integer Generator and we have our winner!

 

Congratulations to Juliet W. from Arkansas!

I will be forwarding your information to the publicist at Random House.  :)

Thanks to everyone who entered!

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