Secret Society by Tom Dolby

First of all, you need to know right off the bat that I read the last sentence of Tom Dolby’s Secret Society and yelled, “You have got to be kidding me!”  This ends on  a cliffhanger and I immediately went to the internet to see if there will be a secret.  According to Tom Dolby’s blog, he is working on the next Secret Society book as we speak.  Phew!

Books about New York City’s Upper East Side teens are a guilty pleasure of mine.  (So are TV shows about the same- I adore Gossip Girl and even watched a few episodes of that painfully awful Prep show on Bravo).  I picked this one up as a fluff read over the Christmas break because I knew I would enjoy it.   I have to admit that I didn’t love the whole thing.  At times the characters felt more like archetypes then real people.  Because the point of view switched between the four main characters, I felt like I didn’t really get to know any of them.  However, then I got to the last chapter.  BAM!  I could not put the book down and I am dying for the sequel now.

It’s hard to summarize this book.  Phoebe is the new girl at Chadwick School, having just moved to New York City with her artist mother. Lauren is one of the rich girls of Chadwick. However, she hides her family secret, the fact that her mother is a raging alcoholic and slowly losing all of her clients.  Then there are Nick and Patch.  Childhood friends who grew up in the same building, but worlds apart, they both attend Chadwick and have managed to stay close.   Nick’s family is wealthy and powerful, but he feels like a failure to them.  Patch lives downstairs in a tiny apartment with his grandmother. His mother is in a psychiatric institution and his father died when he was much younger.  He doesn’t have the money or power to make it big in society, so he hopes that his talent with film will land him a reality show.

When Nick, Lauren, and Phoebe receive mysterious text messages while clubbing, they find themselves being initiated into the Society.  Nick and Lauren have always heard rumors of this powerful and secret group, while Phoebe feels like an outsider in the wrong place.  While the initiation is strange and over-the-top, they learn that membership in the Society comes with great privileges.  Suddenly, Lauren’s jewelry line is picked up by a major designed, Nick gets hooked up with a major club promoter, and Phoebe gets an art show at a prestigious gallery.  But are the privileges worth the price?  When one Society member is found dead and another does missing, the three friends start their own investigation.

Meanwhile, Patch sets forth to infiltrate the Society, hoping to land his reality show pilot with any footage he shoots.  But will he survive his attempts?

Again, there were times when I felt this was slow-moving and almost like a copycat Gossip Girl. But I finished the book and really enjoyed it.  Secret Society is one of those like-it-but-don’t-like-it books.  Fans of Gossip Girl and The Luxe series will enjoy Secret Society, though I would recommend The Luxe series as better guilty pleasure books.


Re-entering the Blogosphere

Phew!  I took off a few days to get my head together, celebrate the holidays, and just relax.  I’ve been reading and writing, and you can expect reviews and posts starting tonight!  It felt good to step away from the blog for a bit and just read for fun.  I’ve spent the last few months frantically reading for the Cybils middle grade panel, and I love it, but that meant pushing lots of other books to the side.  This winter vacation has been a welcome respite from school and reading responsibilities.  And now that our panel has come up with our shortlist, I can read any book I want- guilt free!

Happy Holidays!

Our Next Read Aloud

My 7th and 8th period classes finished reading All The Broken Pieces this week and we needed a new read aloud. For the first time, I presented both classes with 5 books, did a book talk for each one, and then allowed the kids to vote by secret ballot. The winning book would be our next read aloud.

I chose five books that have been on various mock Newbery lists and I would have been happy with any of the choices. However, I was secretly hoping they would choose a specific book because I thought it would fit the class populations well.

The five books I presented were:

The winner was almost unanimous in both classes- Anything But Typical won by a landslide in both classes.  I was thrilled, because I was hoping at least one class would choose it.  I can’t wait to see what kind of conversations come out of our read aloud.  It should be great.

Cybils Reading

I’m here, I promise!  I’ve just been frantically reading and taking notes for the Cybils.  My panel is narrowing down our working shortlists and next week we will choose our final shortlist.  I have a lot more reading to do!

Right now we have a delayed opening tomorrow, but I am crossing my fingers for a snow day so that I can do some more reading!

Blizzard 2009!

We are snowed in here in NJ.  That means lots of time for reading and baking!

Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin

Nora Raleigh Baskin’s Anything But Typical has been on my “must read” pile for the last few months. I was excited to see that it was nominated for the Cybils because it meant I finally had an excuse to bring it to the top of the pile. Boy, am I glad I did. This is a fantastic book and I am thinking of using it as a read aloud with one of my classes after the holidays.

The story is written in the voice of Jason, a middle school boy diagnosed as high-functioning autistic. His life is full of letters- ADHD, LD, HFA, PDD-NOS, NT. While he struggles in school to be accepted socially, he is happy to spend most of his time on the Storyboard writing forum online. On the forum no one sees his odd hand flapping or his struggles to control himself. No one looks at him strangely or makes rude comments. He is a great writer and he can interact with other people without fear of ridicule. And when a girl befriends him on the forum he is thrilled. This would never happen to him in real life (despite the promises of his parents, “Someday you will meet a nice girl….”). But online, he suddenly has a girl friend. Maybe even a girlfriend.

Then everything begins to unravel. Jason’s parents surprise him with a trip to the Storyboard Convention. Phoenixbird messages him that she will also be at the convention. Jason knows that he can’t go to the convention- as soon as his online friends meet him they will treat him just like his classmates do.

I don’t want to give much more away, but this is a book that every.single.teacher should read. I found myself brought to tears more than once. This is not just about a child on the autistic spectrum; I found myself more involved than ever before while reading a book. I felt like I knew Jason. I felt like he was one of my own students. The reactions of his classmates were cruel while peppered with pure reality. Anything But Typical is a powerful book and I think it will make a wonderful read aloud for my students. I can’t recommend it enough.

*Review copy courtesy of the publisher. All views are my own and don’t represent those of my fellow panelists.

Different Read Alouds for Different Classes

For the first time ever, I abandoned a read aloud with some of my classes.  I’ve always persevered through the ups and downs of read alouds, knowing that the payoff would be worth it in the end.  Some books do take longer to get into than others and I think it is important for my students to understand that you can’t quit a book after 10-15 pages.

But all of that changed last month.  I started out reading Also Known As Harper to all four of my classes. My morning classes were flying through it and really got into the story after about 50 pages. My two afternoon classes were an entirely different story- after 3 weeks we were only 60 pages into the book. I don’t think it had anything to do with the storyline- The kids were just not connecting with the story for one reason or another. I still haven’t determined why- maybe the fact both classes are at the end of the day, or the makeup of the classes themselves (my afternoon classes lean very heavily towards the male end). But for the first time I set the book aside and started a completely different read aloud with those classes.

I began reading All The Broken Pieces to those afternoon classes and it was a completely different mood! All of a sudden, they were engaged and begging me to read more. I have students who are looking up more information on the Vietnam War and bringing their research to class, just because they are interested in it.  I really agonized over abandoning a read aloud but now I am so glad that I did.  It was not worth dragging them through the rest of the book while they were disengaged- that would only accomplish the exact opposite of what my read alouds aim to accomplish.

It’s funny, because my morning classes loved Also Known As Harper.  I loved Also Known As Harper.  It’s a great book and one I really wanted to share it with my classes.  But I’m glad that I practiced what I preach and allowed us to abandon a book that just wasn’t clicking with the classes I teach in the afternoon.  I discussed the abandonment with the class and we hypothesized why it might not have been working.  A few students did ask to finish the book so they borrowed my copy and are reading the remainder of the story independently.  It was definitely a learning experience, but a positive one.  So don’t be afraid to abandon a read aloud that is not working!

Tween Book Buying Guide for the Holidays- Poetry

In honor of Poetry Friday, here are some of the most popular poetry anthologies in my class this year!

Where the Sidewalk Ends 30th Anniversary Edition: Poems and Drawings– Shel Silverstein is always a winner with my 6th graders! Where the Sidewalk Ends is his most popular book with my students year in and year out. Inevitably, I end up with a few students who can recite some of the poems word for word.

During our poetry study I always use Poetry Speaks to Children (Book & CD) during our listening center. The anthology includes a variety of poems from poets like Nikki Grimes, Langston Hughes. Robert Frost, Roald Dahl, and many more. The CD includes the poets reading many of the poems and it is beautiful to listen to.

Another popular poet is Jack Prelutsky. I don’t think I have seen my copy of A Pizza the Size of the Sun in months! Every so often I catch a glimpse of it being moved from one student’s backpack to another.

And while it is not strictly a poetry book, I have a soft spot for William Carlos Williams. Jen Bryant’s A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams is one of my favorite picture books. The illustrations by Melissa Sweet are gorgeous and Bryant’s text is lyrical!  I love reading this one aloud.  It’s perfect for all ages.

Do you have any favorite poetry books?

Positively by Courtney Sheinmel

Emerson Price, more commonly known as Emmy, isn’t a typical kid.  Nothing about her life is normal.  She can’t remember a time when she didn’t take numerous prescriptions, when she didn’t stand out from the crowd as the odd one out.  When she was four years old she and her mother were diagnosed as HIV-positive.  When she was eight, her parents divorced.  She and her mom are best friends and their greatest support systems.  But when Emmy is thirteen her mother succumbs to AIDs.  Emmy must go live with her father and pregnant stepmother.  She feels like no one understands her the she way her mother did- no one else needs to take awful medicine everyday, no one else knows what it is like to be the girl with HIV.  Her life is already in upheaval and she starts acting out.  When her father signs her up for a summer camp for HIV-positive girls, she refuses to go.  She already knows she will hate it.  But it turns out to be just what she needed.

When I was in 8th grade I was a member of my school’s forensic team.  (Yes, I was that dorky).  We each chose an oral piece to memorize and perform at the regional competition.  That year, I memorized and performed Elizabeth Glaser’s speech from the 1992 Democratic Convention (read it here).  I had not thought of that speech in years but this book immediately brought it to mind.  It was an extremely inspiring speech and I am grateful that Courtney Sheinmel has memorialized her own experiences with Glaser through the writing of this book.

Positively is an extremely powerful book and one I am glad I read.  It’s so strange for me to look back and think that a girl like Emmy would have had a completely different life if she was my age.  We have come such a long way in the last two decades.  But Scheinmel will make you laugh and cry in Positively. I felt like I knew Emmy and I wanted to stay with her way after the story ended.  I think my students are going to love this one.  It deals with a tough issue that most tweens and teens aren’t even aware of.  Sheinmel deals with it realistically but also appropriately for the age level she is writing for….be prepared with some tissues when you read this one!

*Review copy courtesy of the publisher.  This is a Cybils nominated title and all opinions are my own.