Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

I read Sara Zarr’s Story of a Girl in one sitting. Zarr’s realistic look at high school and small-town politics hit home for me and I was so happy to see her win a National Book Award this past year. When I saw the cover for her newest novel, Sweethearts, besides having a sudden craving for sugar cookies, I immediately knew I had to read it.

I finished Sweethearts this evening and Sara Zarr has done it again!  I could go on and on about how awesome it is, but you need to go buy this book.

After years of hardship, Jenna Vaughn is finally the person she always wanted to be.  She has left behind Jennifer Harris- the fat, lisping, poor, crybaby her elementary school classmates cruelly ridiculed.  Now seventeen, she is thin and pretty.  She is popular at school and is dating the boy everyone else wishes they were dating.  Her mother has remarried and she has a loving stepfather.  She should be the happiest girl in the world.

She should be.

If only she could forget.

Jenna hates her birthday.  It only serves as a reminder of what happened on that awful day when she turned nine.  Back when life was lonely.  Back when she was still Jennifer Harris.  Then, her best friend was Cameron Quick.  Both outcasts, they clung to each other like lifeboats in a raging storm.  All of that changed on the day Jennifer turned nine.  The day Cameron’s father…….

Soon after, Cameron doesn’t come to school.  He isn’t in school the next day, either.  It is then that Jennifer finds out he is gone.  He is dead.  Jennifer only has herself.

Now, at seventeen, Jennifer has become Jenna.  She has buried Jennifer, Cameron, and their memories together.  The hole in heart, left when her soul mate and best friend disappeared from her life, still tries to drown her, sometimes.  But she is Jenna Vaughn now.  Happy, funny, grounded Jenna Vaughn.  Until the day that Cameron Quick comes back.   The day her “perfect” world is turned on its side.

I loved this book.  The characters are realistic and multi-dimensional, as are their relationships.  Jenna is a perceptive observer of both her peers and teenage life in general.  For the majority of the book you don’t know what exactly happened on that fateful afternoon when Jenna turned nine, and that kept me turning the pages.  Sara Zarr weaves a gorgeous story!

I already have 8-9 girls begging me to read this next.  I’m going to have to pull a name out of a hat to decide who gets it next.  They are begging just from my description, after seeing me reading during our reading time today.  How great is that???

Trouble by Gary D. Schmidt

A few days ago, Susan over at Wizards Wireless was kind enough to loan me her ARC of Gary D. Schmidt’s newest novel, Trouble. Schmidt’s Newbery Honor-winning The Wednesday Wars was one of my favorite novels of 2007 so I was looking forward to this one!

I was very excited when I received it and began reading immediately.Trouble is very different from The Wednesday Wars. Where “Wednesday Wars” was funny, poignant, and sometimes even gut-busting, “Trouble” is poignant, full of sorrow and pain, and haunting at times.

Throughout his life, Henry Smith’s father told him that if you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you.  This mantra guides Henry’s life – along with his mother, father, sister Louisa, and older brother Franklin.  However, you can’t avoid Trouble forever, and one night it comes crashing down into Henry’s world in the form of Cambodian immigrant, Chay Chouan. When Chouan’s truck strikes Franklin one night, the resulting racial tensions tear apart quaint Blythebury-by-the-Sea and Henry’s family.

Henry is caught between anger and grief.  Is his brother the All-American hero that the town views him as?  Or is he flawed, maybe even more flawed than most human beings?  How did Trouble find the Smith’s?  Unsure of what to do, he sets out to do the only thing he can- climb Mt.  Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine, which he and Franklin were going to climb together.  Henry, Black Dog (whom he rescued from drowning), and his friend Sanborn set out for Mt. Katahdin without telling their parents.  The journey teaches them more than they ever could have imagined and Henry slowly begins to understand himself, his family, his ancestry, his town, and the world around him.

I loved this book.  “Trouble” had tears in my eyes at some points and made me angry at other points.  Chay Chouan’s family history is heart-wrenching and heartbreaking.  Henry struggles with the possibility that his revered older brother may not deserve the adoration he always so readily accepted (and that Henry so readily offered).  It’s a magnificent picture of one boy’s coming-of-age in a world plagued by Trouble.

Even though I loved “Troub;e”, I don’t think this is a novel many of my students will pick up.  While “The Wednesday Wars” had a voice that attracted 12-13 year olds, I don’t think Henry’s voice will resonate with my students.  I would recommend this to an older audience.  The story is beautiful and I couldn’t put the book down! I wouldn’t be surprised to see this novel on most shortlists for the Newbery in 2009.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Do you use Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak in the classroom? If so, a teacher in Michigan needs your help! According to Halse Anderson, “This teacher could use some professional support. If you teach SPEAK, can you please leave a note in the comments section for her? Tell her why you use the book. Tell her about your classroom experiences and your professional opinion about the place of the book in the curriculum. Or just give her a pat on the back. If you are a teen, tell her what the book meant to you. “

Head on over to Laurie Halse Anderson’s blog to share your stories and inspiration with this teacher. Speak is an incredibly powerful book and deserves its place in our literary canon. Don’t let it be censored!

Moleskine Notebooks

I love Moleskine notebooks.  Love them.  Adore them.  I have a small collection of unused Moleskines sitting in my nightstand.  But I want more.  For some reason, I can not find the large, hardcover Moleskines anywhere around here.  But this is my dream store.  If only it wasn’t in Malaysia….

I am off to Barnes and Noble tomorrow to see if I can find a large/extra large hardcover Moleskine.

Are there any other Moleskine writers out there?

Possible Idea?

In her comment here, author, blogger, and fellow teacher Kate Messner has given me a fantastic idea for my survival-themed unit at the beginning of the year. How cool would it be to have half the class read Life As We Knew It and the other half read the dead and the gone?  I can imagine how this would start off the year-  “Life As We Knew It” scared the bejeezus out of me and I am sure “the dead and the gone” will do the same.  See, now I have a good excuse for an ARC!  I want to read it and then get it approved by the district so that I can use it first thing next year.  😉

Seriously though, how cool would that be?  “Life As We Knew It” is getting raves from my kids this year, boys and girls alike.  I think this would be a fantastic way to kick off the year!

Maze of Bones (39 Clues)

I was reading my YALSA- listserv today when I saw that someone had posted a link to the trailer for Scholastic’s new series, The 39 Clues. Not expecting much, I clicked on the link and was surprised to see that an entire website was already laid out…almost 7 months before the first book will be published!

The video is here. I have to admit- I am intrigued! I am a sucker for historical mysteries, though. I love the “National Treasure” movies more than any logical, intelligent adult should. And I do love Rick Riordan’s writing. Now, I am dying to get my hands on an ARC for “The Maze of Bones”, the first book in the series. I thought it was way too early for ARCs when i went to Mid-winter, but it seems like they must be out there somewhere. And while I am not a big fan of calling anything “the next Harry Potter”, I do like sound of this series and my students love any series books. They also love mysteries. I am hoping this will draw in a few more readers for my class next year.

While watching the video, I also had another thought. It seems that book trailers are becoming more and more popular. While they haven’t hit the mainstream too much, I do think I will show this trailer to my students. In the past, commercials for books seemed like a silly premise. Those were better left to movies and tv shows. However, kids today are inundated by media in all parts of their lives. Are book trailers or commercials the wave of the future? I think a trailer like this one would pull in a lot of students. I also think that trailers for many of my class’ favorite books would be great to watch. In class, we talk about the “movie in our mind” whenever we read our novels. Picturing what you read is a huge part of getting into the reading zone. It’s what makes you feel like you are in the story. So are book trailers/commercials a natural extension of that same strategy?

I hope we see more book trailers in the future. More book trailers that are professionally made and treated almost like movie previews. It’s a great way to get the word out about books and authors and also builds up buzz. Buzz is what sells books. Buzz is what makes my students go to the bookstore and choose a particular book. Right now, that buzz is usually from me or their classmates making recommendations. A perfect example is Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid. As more and more students read the first book, buzz kept building. Then, as we anxiously awaited the publishing of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, the excitement was palpable.  A perfect example of buzz building.  Then, as soon as the book was released I had students who raced to the book store to buy a copy.  Other students immediately placed an order for the book through Scholastic’s book clubs.  Without any buzz, this would never have happened.  And if book trailers will build that buzz, I think I have to be a fan!

This doesn’t mean I want every book trailer to proclaim “the next Harry Potter!” et al.  But a quick trailer that I can show after I booktalk certain books can really pull in my more visual learners.  It will be interesting to see if more series publishers go down this road and let us have trailers.  Any thoughts?

Peak by Roland Smith

The first novel we read each year is a survival-themed novel. Unfortunately, I have not yet found a successful first novel for any of my classes. We have read Dogsong, My Side of the Mountain, and The Talking Earth. All of them were flops. My students could not connect with them at all and thus ended up hating the entire experience. This is an awful way to start the year! Fortunately, this year I began with a great read-aloud (Ralph Fletcher’s Flying Solo) but our first novel for mini-lessons was completely hated. So I am always on the lookout for survival books that I think the class will enjoy. I think I may have found the one- Roland Smith’s Peak.

Peak (no, not Pete. Peak, as in mountain peak) Marcello is the son of rock rats. “It could have been worse. My parents could have named me Glacier, or Abyss, or Crampon, ” he says. His mother has given up the climbing life and married his stepfather, a lawyer named Rolf. His father is one of the most famous climbers in the world and hasn’t seen Peak since he was a baby. Peak, his mother, stepfather, and twin little sisters live in New York City. The only time Peak gets to climb, his passion, is during summer climbing camps. However, he begins climbing skyscrapers, for the shear thrill. When he reaches his destination he tags a window with his symbol, a blue stenciled mountain peak. This works out until he is caught climbing the Woolworth Building.

After he is caught, he is held in custody by the NYC police. Unfortunately, the media sensationalizes his actions and another teen copies him, ending with fatal results. The state throws the book at Peak. Until his father, Josh, shows up. A deal is cut- Peak’s parents place $150,000 dollars in a trust until Peak is 18. If he doesn’t commit any more crimes before then they will get their money back. And Peak must leave the state of NY to allow the hubbub to die down. And he must go with his father, Josh.

Peak is suddenly thrust into a new life. His father lives in Thailand, where he runs his multi-million dollar climbing company. Peak is scheduled to attend the International School there until he can return to NY. Or so he thinks. Before he realizes it, he is in Kathmandu. And his father tells him they will be climbing Mount Everest. Peak finds himself in the complex world of an Everest base camp, where large amounts of money are at stake and climbing companies offer people an often-deadly shot at the summit. Josh’s team is preparing various expeditions full of paying customers who are attempting to reach the summit. Suddenly, Peak Marcello is faced with the chance to become the youngest climber to ever reach the summit of Mt. Everest.

The novel is full of mountaineering facts told in (all too) vivid detail: corpses litter the paths to the summit, HAPE affects many of the climbers, and people are willing to do anything to reach the summit. The story is told through Peak’s writing in his Moleskine notebooks, which will be used to judge his graduation from his school in New York. The story is fascinating and suspenseful. Will Peak make it to the summit? Will the Chinese allow him to do so? Using current events involving Tibet, China, and Nepal the story intertwines the tales of other climbers along with Peak. It is a fascinating look at a deadly lifestyle.

I am hoping to present Peak to our language arts coordinator over the next few weeks to see if we can get it approved for next year. I think the students will connect with Peak’s story and be excited to read about his choices and their consequences in the camps at Mt. Everest. Has anyone else used this novel in school?

Peak is out in hardcover right now. I highly recommend it!

Poetry Friday

Children Learn What They Live
Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph. D.

If children live with hostility,
they learn to fight.

If children live with ridicule,
they learn to be shy.

If children live with tolerance,
they learn to be patient.

If children live with encouragement,
they learn confidence.

If children live with praise,
they learn to appreciate.

If children live with fairness,
they learn justice.

If children live with security,
they learn faith.

If children live with approval,
they learn to like themselves.

If children live with acceptance, and friendship,
they learn to find love in the world.


Sometimes we lose sight of what our students learn from us when we aren’t explicitly teaching.