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

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

Bystander by James Preller

As a middle school teacher, I see bullying everyday. People who don’t work in education tend to think bullying is only physical- fistfights and the like. But I see name calling, teasing, isolation, rumors, gossip, and much more used to instill fear in students. While most schools have anti-bullying curriculums, it seems that many students tune them out. When you are 11 or 12 years old, the last thing you want to listen to your teachers about is how to get along with your classmates. Everyone knows teachers are ancient and never experienced middle school!

That’s where a book like James Preller’s Bystander comes in.  Eric is the new kid in his Long Island town.  When he meets Griffin and his posse of hangers-on right before school begins he can tell they are a little different.  Over the next few weeks he learns that Griffin is the sort of kid who makes an awful enemy.  Charming and scheming, he is what teachers call an “adult pleaser but kid teaser”.  He is one of those kids with a naturally magnetic personality, one he uses to control the kids around him.  But he always puts on a different face for the adults in his life, such as teachers and parents, and convinces them he is a sweet, mild-mannered child with good morals.

Very quickly Eric realizes that Griffin is a bully.  But he doesn’t do much about it, as a bystander.  Why?  Because he isn’t the target.  As any kid will tell you, stepping in will only make you the bully’s next target.  At least, that’s the line of thought most kids follow.  But when Griffin goes too far Eric begins to notice exactly what he is doing to his so-called friends.  What’s a kid to do when his conscience kicks in but his brain tells him that he will be the next victim if he does anything?

I really enjoyed Bystander.  It’s not an easy book to read.  There were a few times where I felt teachers might enjoy it more than tweens, but the message really hits home.  Kids can be cruel and that doesn’t always mean throwing punches.  Sometimes, it’s the verbal and emotional bullying that is even worse.

What I really loved about this book is the fact that it doesn’t end with the teacher or another adult solving the problem and dealing with the bullies.  Eric and his friends need to decide for themselves how to handle the situation.  As a teacher, I admit to being a little frustrated at first when I read the last page.  But then I realized it is exactly what tween are looking for.  They don’t need us stepping in all the time and solving their problems.  They need to learn how to work within their own cliques and peer groups.  As much as we might want to see the bully “get what he deserves”, that isn’t always realistic and kids know that.  So kudos to James Preller!

I look forward to adding this one to my classroom library.  I think it would make a great read aloud or literature circle title.  I can imagine some great conversations and writing stemming from the story.

*My own purchased copy. This is a Cybils nominee and all opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the panel as a whole.

Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

Laurie Halse Anderson has long been one of my favorite authors. I read “Speak” when I was in 6th grade, and I have been devouring her books ever since.

Twisted is the story of Tyler, the loser his entire life. He was always made fun of and always picked on- that kid in high school that isn’t the biggest nerd, but definitely not a jock. When he decided he wanted to prove how cool he could be, he designed what he thought was a safe but memorable prank. But when pulling off the prank led to him getting arrested, he never expected what would happen next. Who would have thought that all those hours of community service would make him look like the Incredible Hulk instead of an incredible dweeb? But people are noticing. Some of them are embracing his new personality, but it seems like others hate him even more then they did before. But isn’t that what happens in high school?

This book had me teary-eyed at the end and on the edge of my seat during the climax. Tyler is everykid- every kid who is picked on, miserable, treated like garbage, and still tries to do the right thing. He isn’t your stereotypical teen, and I loved that. He is sweet, moral, but also confused. And his father doesn’ t make his life any easier.

A fantastic novel, though I expect no less from Anderson.

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

I had been meaning to read this book for a while. Somehow, it came up in discussion at school last week, and one of my students immediately responded with, “My aunt wrote that book!” I’m going to get more info this week, because Wendy Mass is semi-local and I would love to try and get her to visit our school!

I was completely fascinated by this book. The main character, Mia, has synesthesia. (I keep wanting to say “the disease” or “disorder” synesthesia, when that isn’t true at all. As one of the characters says, synesthesia is a gift!) Like me, you may be asking what the heck synesthesia is. According to Wikipedia, synesthesia is a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. Mia has a type of synesthesia in which letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored.

In 8th grade now, Mia has been hiding her gift since 3rd grade, when she realized everyone else around her did not see colors associated with letters and numbers. Because of this, she is failing math. She is struggling with her gift until she meets others who share her gift. The book explores her journey as she learns who she is and if she wants to be “cured”.

I had never heard of synesthesia before this. While I have a very hard time visualizing something like Mia’s perceptions, I am fascinated by it. And more than a little jealous!! I would love to see life that way that she and others do!

This was a great, quick read. I enjoyed Wendy Mass’ style and have begun reading “Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life”, another book she wrote. Hopefully, I will have a review soon!

Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis


Emma Jean Lazarus is not your typical 7th grade girl. She is “strange” (dictionary definition: extraordinary, remarkable, singular) and proud of it. Emma Jean approaches her interactions with her peers as a cultural anthropology study. After years of study, she has learned how to interact with her classmates and the adults in her life. In fact, she thinks she knows them better than they know themselves. Throughout the novel, she is determined to help her classmates, her mother, and her teachers be happy and fulfilled. Unfortunately, her ideas usually involve forgery of some sort. As one can imagine, this has a tendency to backfire on her.

I finished this novel a few months ago. I usually don’t go back and review something after that time period because I have forgotten about it. However, Emma Jean (and Lauren Tarshis) left an impression on me. Tarshis captures the heart and soul of middle school in her novel. Emma Jean is strange. No one will deny that. However, her classmates have learned to tolerate her and even include her. While reading the novel, I pictured a few of my own students. I wish they appreciated being “strange” as much as Emma Jean does.

Emma isn’t the only great character in this novel. Colleen is a 7th grade girl. You know- insecure, sometimes sad, and always unsure of herself. One of my favorite passages could be used to describe almost every girl in my 6th grade room at some point during the year: “She wished she could recapture the feeling she’d had the other day at school, when for just a few moments she really didn’t care what Laura Gilroy thought of her. But that had lasted no longer than the flavor in a stick of sugarless bubble gum” . The boys in the book are also equally oblivious to the goings on around them as the boys I see everyday. I laugh, because they don’t even realize all of “girl world” is going on around them (and about them!) while they go about their daily business. Lauren Tarshis captures this perfectly. Even the adults are flawed and imperfect. Exactly what every middle-schooler sees in the adults in their own lives.

I would love to read this aloud to my students next year. It is not a long novel and I hope to fit it in. In fact, it is on my short list for novels to begin the year with. I believe in building community in my classroom and no other book I have read this year and struck that theme as greatly as Emma Jean Lazarus.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,589 other followers