Boy21

I was fortunate enough to meet author Matthew Quick at NCTE back in November.  I picked up a copy of his book and promised myself I would read it soon.  Then I got the opportunity to head Mr. Quick read a bit from the book and speak about writing it and I was hooked.  I read Boy21 a few days after coming home from NCTE and I’m still thinking about it. I expected to like the book due to Quick being a Jersey boy and the Jersey roots of the story. I’m also a basketball fan and figured it would be good for me to have another go-to sports book for some of my readers. After reading Boy21 I realized it is much more than a sports book. As one of my students said upon completing the book, “Mrs. G, it’s not just a book about basketball. It’s about life. And it’s really good.”

Finley lives in Bellmont, a dying town where racism, the Irish mob, and poverty are a part of life.  Finley is one of the few white kids in his high school, where his team mates refer to him as “White Rabbit” because he’s the only white guy on the varsity team.  He’s a hard worker who may not be the best on the team but just may be the most disciplined and most dedicated.  He hopes that basketball will be a way out of Bellmont for himself and his girlfriend Erin, who is a fantastic basketball player.  They practice together all summer in preparation for their senior year. But things take a turn for the bizarre when Coach shows up one night and asks Finley to look after a new student (and hopefully a new member of the basketball team).

Russ is a weird kid.  Coach explains to Finley that his parents were recently murdered and since then Russ has been shutting the world out.  He’s moved back to Bellmont to live with his grandparents and get a fresh start.  But when Finley meets him, he realizes that Coach was not entirely truthful.  It turns out Russ is one of the top-rated high school players in the country, or at least he was.  Now, he refers to himself as Boy21 and has a bizarre obsession with outer space.  Oh, and he no longer has any interest in basketball.  Coach wants Finley to look after him and convince him to play basketball again, even though that means Finley will probably lose his spot on the team if Russ decides to play.

And then something terrible happens to Erin, and Finley and Russ must deal with the tragedy and loss in their pasts, and the possible losses they may suffer in the future.

As my student said so eloquently when he handed back our classroom copy of Boy21, this is a book about life.  Smart, funny, raw, and touching, it’s a book I can confidently recommend to all of my readers, from reluctant to voracious.  The characters are real and their lives are not perfect.  I found myself wanting to dive between the pages and rescue Finley, Russ, and Erin. But at the same time, I knew that none of them would allow themselves to be rescued.  Boy21 is a book I am looking forward to handing to a lot of my John Green fans, because Quick’s book is smart and witty while still making the reader’s heart break and put itself back together again.

Highly, highly recommended!

 

 

*ARC courtesy of the publisher, from NCTE

Latasha and the Little Red Tornado

When Michael Scotto emailed me to ask if I would be interested in reading a review copy of his novel, Latasha and the Little Red Tornado, I wasn’t sure if it was for me. I try to focus on YA titles these days, because those are the books my students are reading. It takes a special middle grade book (especially if it’s on the younger end of the spectrum!) to get my attention. But Michael hooked me when he mentioned that one aspect of the plot dealt with the main character trying to train her puppy. Been there, done that! I figured it wouldn’t hurt to give the book a shot.

When the book came, I placed it on my TBR pile which was taking over my life. I was in the middle of reading for the Cybils and didn’t have a lot of time to read anything else. I finally got a chance to read Latasha and the Little Red Tornado a few weeks ago and I loved it!

Latasha is adorable. She is intelligent, well-meaning, and wants to be grown up more than anything in the world. Her best friend is her puppy, Ella Fitzgerald. But Latasha struggles to deal with her mother’s new job and the fact that her landlady is now her babysitter. Plus, Ella just won’t listen and the landlady is not a fan of disobedient dogs. So Ella decides she will train Ella to be the perfect tenant.

This book is adorable! I can’t wait to pass it on to some of my younger cousins. Latasha is easy to like and easy to relate to. The dog training aspect of the story is well-done and realistic and you can’t help but love Ella. She is just so cute! But the plot is anything but predictable- brace yourself because you won’t see the ending coming!

Highly recommended for middle grade readers, particularly in 4th/5th grade!

Poetry and Science- Perfect Together?

Last Friday a colleague and I took some time for professional development at a high school in northern NJ that has a program similar to ours.  I was very excited to meet Erin Colfax, co-author of the upcoming Writing Poetry through the Eyes of Science: A Teacher’s Guide to Scientific Literacy and Poetic Response. (We have already ordered a copy and I can’t wait to take a look at it!).

Erin was an absolute inspiration. The woman literally does everything.  She designs research projects all over the world and travels to collect the necessary data so that she can bring it back to her students.   On top of this, she is one of the leaders of the Science Academy program at Morristown HS and co-teaches in English and History.  She and her co-teachers work together to integrate science and research into the content areas and the results are amazing.  Erin told us how she studied with an embalmer in town during the Civil War unit and then they set up a mock embalming in the classroom, where the embalmer used Civil War era tools.  How awesome is that?!  And that is only one example of the amazing things she is doing.

Personally, I was thrilled to talk to Erin about English.  I am a science geek and for a long time considered a career in science before I decided to be an English teacher.  As my bio colleague (and my former bio teacher!) always reminds me, I am still pretty involved in science thanks to the Monarch Teacher Network.  But Erin helped write  Writing Poetry through the Eyes of Science: A Teacher’s Guide to Scientific Literacy and Poetic Response and I was dying to pick her brain before I got my hands on the book.  Let me tell you- Erin and Nancy are both amazing!  The way Erin described her Science and Poetry summer camp, it was like my dream come true.  And the way they integrate science and poetry is inspirational.  Erin believes that the act of writing poetry, designing similes, metaphors, and other figurative language, helps students really learn tough science concepts.  You know what?  I agree!

I am looking forward to talking more with Erin in the future and sharing ideas with her.  I also highly recommend Writing Poetry through the Eyes of Science: A Teacher’s Guide to Scientific Literacy and Poetic Response.  While it is only available for preorder now, it should ship at the end of this month.  (And it will only cost about $30, NOT the crazy price listed on the Amazon preorder page!).  I was lucky enough to see a lot of her materials last week and I know it will be well worth it.

Wintertown by Stephen Emond

Described as “Garden State meets Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”, Wintertown is a book I have been looking forward to reading. I am probably the world’s biggest “Garden State” fan, so it sounded perfect. Fortunately, I was not disappointed!

First, the structure of the book is unexpected. There are illustrations throughout the book, so upon first glance one might think it is a graphic novel. However, the prose is narrative. There are not a lot of illustrated YA novels out there and I think Wintertown will hit the sweet spot for many readers.  I am not a big fan of comics, but I found myself drawn to the comics at the beginning of each chapter.  In fact, I think I would read a graphic novel based on the comic strip!

Evan is preppy.  He is Ivy-League bound, works hard at school, and wants to make his parents happy.  His best friend Lucy moved away a few years ago, after her parents’ divorce, but Evan looks forward to her annual visit each winter.  But this year, something is different. New Lucy arrives in town  with short choppy dyed-solid-black hair. New Lucy suddenly has a nose piercing. Evan is shocked that she smokes and drinks now.  Even worse?  This New Lucy is always angry, quiet and moody. She no longer opens up to Evan and it’s like they aren’t even friends.

Evan is a good guy.  He knows that the real Lucy, Old Lucy, is buried somewhere beneath this new facade.  But after a few days he isn’t so sure.  He doesn’t know how to be her friend even though he is pretty sure she needs a friend more than ever right now.

The POV changes from Evan to Lucy halfway through the book and you get to see Lucy’s point-of-view.  While I did not particularly like Lucy, I appreciated the change.  Seeing the events of the book through her eyes softened my feelings toward her a bit.  She has had a hard life, one much harder than those around her realize.  Being “tough” is her coping strategy.  But she also wants to help Evan.  She needs to convince him that he has to take control of his future instead of letting his father dictate his life’s path.  But can she do that when she can’t even hold a real conversation with Evan?

This is a great coming of age story that will resonate with boys and girls.  The comic strips and illustrations add another dimension to the story that is very much appreciated.  The issues the characters experience are relatable and I think they will ring true for contemporary fans.  I look forward to sharing this with my readers.  Recommended for high school classroom libraries.

 

*ARC provided by the publisher

Twitter-size Reviews

I am so behind on reviews!  Between reading for school, reading fo r the Cybils, grading, planning, and running the dogs every day, there just isn’t enough time in the day!  So I am succumbed to the pressures of my towering to-be-reviewed pile.  Over the next few days I will be posting short, Twitter-sized reviews of books I’ve read recently.

Ashes by Ilsa J. Blick- So creepy and made my skin crawl. I don’t like zombie books. I loved this one. Dystopian and dark, I couldn’t put this down. Highly recommended for high school libraries.  The characters are engaging and the story will keep you on the edge of your seat.  Warning- not a book to read as you are eating lunch or dinner!  I wouldn’t even snack while reading this one…

 
The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School by Alexandra Robbins- An interesting look at high school cliques.  Not a huge fan of the choice to include a teacher as one of the subjects (especially as her status isn’t revealed until later in the book).  Definitely thought-provoking.

 

 

Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz- I picked this up because I have two extremely intelligent dogs and wanted to know more about animal behavior, specific how the canine brain works.  This is a science book that won’t overwhelm the casual reader and I learned some interesting things about how dogs view the world.  Recommended for dog lovers- it may change the way you interact with your pet.

Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker

In her small Texas town, Lacey Ann Byer has a reputation.  She’s a good girl.  Her father is the local preacher and she is expected to live up to the ideal of “preacher’s daughter”.  But that’s never been a problem for her.  In line with being the good girl in town, she has never wished to be the most popular or the prettiest girl.  But this year, she wants to shine.  For the first time, she is old enough to try out for the most difficult and highly lauded character in the church’s annual Hell House- abortion girl.  The annual Hell House is her church’s way of teaching young people about the dangers of sin and it draws visitors from the surrounding towns.  Then things change when Ty moves to town.  He and Lacey grow close, but his questions cause Lacey to start thinking deeply about her own beliefs and faith.

I loved Small Town Sinners. It is unlike anything I have ever read before. It’s a book about religion without being heavy-handed or preachy. Religion plays a major role in the plot, but it doesn’t read like a “religious” book. Lacey is easy to relate to and all of the characters are real.  They aren’t caricatures of people with faith (which is something I see in some YA books).  They  are who they are and they ring true.  And despite being the preacher’s daughter, Lacey is a normal teenage girl.  She is trying to figure out who she is and where her place in the world is, all while trying to live up to the ideals set by her parents.

A fantastic read for anyone interested in contemporary YA.  I would recommend this to fans of Sarah Dessen.  Fans of Melissa Walker’s Violet on the Runway series will also enjoy her newest book.  Highly recommended.

And how awesome is this cover?  A++++!

*copy courtesy of publisher

You Are My Only by Beth Kephart

I was intrigued by the cover of You Are My Only when I saw it on the Egmont table at BEA. I flipped it over to read the blurb and was immediately taken in. I am a crime buff- Law and Order addict, news junkie, you name it. I knew You Are My Only was a book for me.

This is a dual narrative.  The chapters alternate between two seemingly independent stories and I was equally taken by both.  It’s obvious that the stories will intersect at some point, but it’s unclear how that merger will come about.  I kept thinking I had it figured out, but Kephart kept me on my toes.

Emmy Rane is married at nineteen and has a baby by twenty.  She is trapped in a loveless marriage, feeling more useless as each day goes by.  Her singular joy in life is Baby.  While she struggles to be  the best mom she can be, she does a great job.  But everything changes the day that she leaves Baby in the yard for a few seconds while she runs into the house.  When she returns to the yard, Baby is gone.  All that remains is a single sock.  She spends the rest of her life blaming herself for Baby’s kidnapping and what she assumes is her eventual death.

Sophie is fourteen years old and homeschooled by a somewhat eccentric mother.  They move constantly, always trying to hide from what her mother refers to as “the No Good”.  But their latest home is different.  Sophie befriends the boy next door, gaining her first real friend.  His elderly aunts treat her as their own and soon Sophie is sneaking out of the house to spend time with them, always worried that her mother will find out and whisk them away to a new home.

This isn’t an action-filled book, despite the blurb.  It’s quiet, meditative.  Both narrative arcs are engrossing.  I found myself loving each story individually.  Whenever the narrative changed I would be upset leaving that character behind. But then, within a few sentences, I was equally as engrossed in the alternate story.  Kephart chooses her words carefully and the prose is gorgeous.  I found myself savoring each descriptive sentence while fighting the urge to fly through the book to reach the conclusion.

Highly recommended.  Available in October.

*copy received at BEA

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Beautiful.  Heartbreaking. Haunting.  Powerful.  Life-changing.  The only words that can describe Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls: Inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd.  A dark and moving story of loss and life.  One that should be in every classroom and school library.

There is nothing that can prepare you to face a life of loss.  There is even less one can do to prepare a preteen.  Connor’s father lives with his new family in the States, leaving Connor and his mother to carry on in England.  He cares for his mother but something is wrong.  She has been sick, but Connor doesn’t realize how sick she is.  When she begins getting weaker, Connor realizes that he may be losing her as she loses her battle.  It’s almost more than he can handle, alongside his problems with the bullies at the school and his overbearing grandmother.

At night, he lies awake staring into the darkness.  Until 12:07am when the Monster appears, answering Connor’s call.  Except that Connor doesn’t know what the Monster means.  He hasn’t called him.  But the Monster continues coming at seven minutes past midnight each night.  Taking the form of a yew tree in the field outside Connor’s window, he presents to three true, yet strange stories to Connor one at a time.  Then the Monster asks Connor to tell him a true story, one that Connor must swear not to tell anyone, or else the Monster will eat Connor alive.

And in the midst of this chaos that is Connor’s life, he wonders what this Monster could mean.  Is he losing his mind? Or is the Monster some form of divine intervention, there to help him come to terms with the difficulties of growing up?

A Monster Calls is a gripping and epic tale.  I found myself crying multiple times as I read, as I followed the emotional rollercoaster of Connor’s life.  It’s a quick read, but one that you will want to reread immediately upon finishing.  The sparse, lyrical prose is rife with metaphors and allegory.  Ness tells a beautiful and raw story that will leave you wiping away tears and contemplating life.

The story is enhanced by Jim Kay’s haunting black-and-white illustrations.  This is the rare MG/YA book that is heavily illustrated and the illustrations are magical.  The splatters, lines, and shadows capture the haunting tone of the story and the ephemeral feeling of the story.  The emotions jump across the page, illustrations and lyrical prose hand-in-hand.

The original idea for  A Monster Calls was developed by the late Siobhan Dowd, the Carnegie Award winner.  After her death, Patrick Ness stepped in and did an unbelievable job in turning Dowd’s characters, premise, and beginning a beautiful story that will move anyone who reads it to tears.  Highly, highly recommended.

Real Revision: Authors’ Strategies to Share with Student Writers by Kate Messner

Real Revision: Authors’ Strategies to Share with Student Writers by Kate Messner is a must-have book for any teacher of writing, regardless of grade level. I can not recommend this book enough!

First of all, Kate gets it.  She is a full-time author, full-time seventh grade teacher, and full-time mom.  She teaches and actually uses the strategies she shares.  And as a writer, she is a revision expert. She knows that revision is hard work and she understand the difficulty of giving revision enough time in age of timed tests and standardized writing. I am thrilled that she decided to write this book and share her wisdom with us!  (And the wisdom of many of her author friends).  Kate understands the current climate of testing, she gets middle school minds, and she knows how much pressure teachers feel in this day and age.  Yet she still manages to make the book accessible, practical, and conversational.  You can read Real Revision: Authors’ Strategies to Share with Student Writers straight through or a few pages at a time and you will learn something every time you sit down with it.  My copy is flagged and I know I will be pulling it out constantly this year.

I read a lot of professional books about reading, writing, and general literacy.  Kate’s Real Revision: Authors’ Strategies to Share with Student Writers by Kate Messner  is the first book in a long time to grab me and make me want to continue reading long after I should have put the book down.  She doesn’t just share her own classroom experiences, but also includes interviews and essays from various children’s and YA authors.  The authors share their own methods of “real” revision and ways teachers can apply those methods in their own classrooms.

And teachers will love, love, love the “try it” sheets that are included throughout the book and in the Appendix.  Many of the “try it” sheets are invitations for students to try a revision strategy shared by an author in the book. Because these are authors thats students are familiar with, I imagine they will love having the chance to “try” what their favorite author suggests.They can actually learn about the real revision work done for the books in our classroom libraries.   How awesome is that?!

Highly, highly recommended for teachers of grades 2-12.  There is something in here for teachers at all grade levels!  Pick up a copy before the school year starts!

Falling for Hamlet by Michelle Ray

I’m a sucker for modern day retellings of classic stories.  This, coupled with a reading of Hamlet in my English IV classes, attracted me to Falling for Hamlet, Michelle Ray’s debut novel.

Told from Ophelia’s point of view, Falling for Hamlet places Hamlet firmly in the modern era.  Hamlet is still Denmark’s prince, but he is followed by paparazzi, parties at frat houses, and carries a smart phone.  Ophelia lives in the very modern castle and has been dating Hamlet on and off for years.  Her father is the Danish king’s most trusted advisor and she lives a glamorous life.  However, life isn’t as glamorous as it may seem.  She and Hamlet can never have a real moment together, thanks to his overbearing mother and the insanity of the paparazzi.

Michelle Ray has managed to modernize the tale of Hamlet while also staying faithful to the original.  All of the characters are here and match very closely with Shakespeare’s original creations.  Each chapter of Falling for Hamlet  opens with Ophelia being interviewed by TV personality, Zara. (Zara is pretty much Opra).   Zara is attempting to delve into the scandal and gossip that has plagued the Danish royal family and it’s an interesting way to bring the reader into the story.  I feel like Shakespeare would approve of this writing device. Most of the chapters end with quotes of  the transcript from Ophelia’s interrogation  by Francisco and Bernardo, agents of the DDI (Danish Department of Investigation).  Again, I loved this craft tool.

I really enjoyed the way Ray was able to take Shakespeare’s classic story and make it modern without changing the story completely. I look forward to sharing this with my students,  as a way of demonstrating how the themes present in Shakespeare’s plays are relevant in today’s world.  All of the themes, characters, jokes, and innuendo are there.  It’s just modern.  And come on, how much would Shakespeare have loved the addition of tabloids and paparazzai?

I admit I do like the cover, despite some hate for it on other blogs.  It’s a tabloid-y cover and captures the story well.  Ophelia is strong and sane, but she is trying to care for Hamlet, care for her father, and be a normal high school senior.  Sometimes she just wants a minute alone with her boyfriend!  On the other hand, I look forward to seeing what they do with the paperback cover.  I do hope the cover doesn’t turn some people off, because this is a great book and a fantastic adaptation of Hamlet.  It’s not a light and fluffy chick lit book- it’s dark and brooding, moody and upsetting.  It’s Hamlet.  

 

*ARC courtesy of the publisher

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