My #alayma Predictions!

When You Reach Me won the 2010 Newbery Medal.

At 11am EST/8am PST the ALA Youth Media Awards will begin. I will be hunkered down in my classroom with a few students (hopefully!), watching the awards as they unfold over our lunch. Every year I set a goal for myself- read the Newbery, and now the Printz, Award winner and honor books before they are announced. So here goes again… predictions for this year. These are in no particular order and I don’t pretend to know what will take home the gold as opposed to an honor. These are just the books I expect/hope to see honored later today!

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Boy21 by Matthew Quick
The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Endangered by Eliot Schrefer


Can’t wait to see if I get any of them right! What are you predicting will take home a sticker?


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Cybils YA Favorites

The Cybils process is grueling.  As a Round 1 panelist, you read and read and read for two months and along the way you fall in love with books.  You make your list and then you talk to you fellow panelists.  Horror of horrors, they don’t see the same gems that you do!  The end result is an amazing conversation (ok, many conversations) where the final shortlist is decided.  You learn from your fellow panelists and it’s an amazing experience.  I’m thrilled with our shortlist, but of course there are books I wish we could have added to the list.  Thus, my personal Cybils list was born.  Below I have highlighted some of the books I absolutely loved in the YA category this year and I hope you love them too!

Bookshelves 3 stories

Bookshelves 3 stories (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick-Based on the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond, who survived the Pol Pot Regime in Cambodia as a child, McCormick’s tale weaves fiction and nonfiction into a raw and heartbreaking tale of childhood lost.  Arn loses his family and eventually is moved to the very center of the Killing Fields, where he is forced to make decisions that no child should ever be forced to consider.  This is a tissue book, but it’s an important one for teens to read.
  • Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator by Josh Berk- This is definitely not a tissue book! Guy is forced to join the Forensics Club at school when his friend Anoop drags him there in the hopes of meeting girls. Guy had me laughing throughout the book, even when he was thinking about his recently-deceased father.  Nothing is sacred to Guy and he will have you laughing on every page.  The snark is perfect and Guy reminds me of some of my friends in high school.  Perfect for high school readers looking for a book not full of love or tears.
  • The Opposite of Hallelujah by Anna Jarzab- Be warned- this one weighs in at over 400 pages.  But unlike many YA books that seem to drag on when they reach page 350, this one kept me intrigued.  It deals with a lot of issues that don’t crop up in a lot of YA and I appreciated that.  Caro’s older sister joined the convent when Caro was only 8 years old, so they never really knew each other.  For a long time, it was easier to lie about her sister’s whereabouts rather than explain her vocation, which only upsets Caro’s parents.  But when Hannah quits the convent and moves back up, Caro’s whole life is turned upside down.  A great addition to any high school classroom library.  (I also appreciated that the parents in this one were actually decent people who were struggling with how to help both of their daughters).
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green- Do I really need to say anything else about this one? I have 8 copies in circulation in my classroom library and they are all being held hostage by students. Easily the most popular book in my classroom.
  • Ladies in Waiting by Laura L. Sullivan- This one is just plain fun! Three girls named Elizabeth, from very different classes, are brought together in in England’s scandal-filled court. It’s a very bawdy time period and Sullivan doesn’t shy away from that! But don’t assume this is just Gossip Girl set in the seventeenth-century. It’s intelligent and full of detail about the time period. Probably more on the upper-end of YA, but I would have read it as a teen and loved it!
  • Mister Death’s Blue-Eyed Girls by Mary Downing Hahn- When I taught 6th grade, Hahn’s books were extraordinarily popular. When this book was nominated for the Cybils I picked it up immediately. I wasn’t sure that Hahn’s writing would hold up in YA but boy oh boy, does it! Based on Hahn’s true-life experience growing up in the shadow of a local murder, this story will haunt you. Perfect for true-crime addicts!
  • Four Secrets by Margaret Willey- This one creeped me out, in a good way. A great mystery that also deals with the ramifications of bullying, it will keep you on the edge of your seat. The story is told from four perspectives, and it actually works!
  • Personal Effects by E.M. Kokie- Matt’s brother, TJ, was killed in Iraq and ever since then Matt’s world has changed. Their father is distant and cruel and Matt is pushing away his friends. But when TJ’s belongings finally arrive from Iraq, Matt sets out on an impromptu road trip to deliver his brother’s unsent letter. But did he really know Matt at all? Kokie pulls no punches and the story moves quickly and without reservation. Highly recommended.
  • You Are My Only by Beth Kephart- Two tales woven together to complete a single story, Kephart’s prose is really poetry and it’s compulsively readable. I read this one straight through and I imagine many teens will, too. I won’t spoil it, but know that the stories of two women are told- Emmy, who is abused and neglected by her husband and Sophie, a 14-year-old who is homeschooled and hidden away from the outside world. Both stories are heartbreaking yet the story is full of hope. Gorgeous!

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Weekly Diigo Posts (weekly)

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What Will You Do with an English Degree?

  1. Michael Berube asks: ”what will you do with an English degree?” and concludes- a lot.
  2. RT @samplereality: Another way of interpreting the data @MichaelBerube1 uses ( is that STEM degrees need more reading and writing. #MLA13
  3. “The more reading and writing they did – serious reading, analytical writing – the more they learned. ” > STEM please
  4. A very interesting article that makes a great argument for some majors that you may have never considered!
  5. Great post! Developing critical media literacy across texts and kinds of media (including film) is absolutely an asset.
  6. That Humanities Degree you’re pursuing will suit you quite nicely career-wise…
  7. To anyone who’s ever been asked, “What do you do with an English (insert other creative) degree?” @CNN
  8. Wondering about the value of a liberal arts degree? One of our #pennstate profs breaks it down for @CNN
  9. Great article by Michael Bérubé on the value of a Humanities degree schoolsofthought.blogs.cnn….
  10. RT @KenSmith: “Humanities majors .. are employable anywhere in the economy where there is thinking to be done”–Michael Bérubé. schoolsofthought.blogs.cnn….

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Full STEAM Ahead with Jen Bryant!

Full STEAM Ahead

I am a huge fan of Jen Bryant’s books. Her prolific career includes books like The Trial, A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, Ringside, 1925, and many others.  I always enjoy Jen’s books because they involve a great deal of research and often take place in my home state of NJ, or surrounding states.  When I started this blog series I immediately thought of Jen and I am thrilled that she was kind enough to contribute this week’s post.

Trial book cover 2The Trial is one of my favorite books because it follows the Lindbergh baby kidnapping from the viewpoint of a teen living through the news cycle at the time.  The Lindbergh baby kidnapping has always fascinated me.  Last year, while attending the Monmouth Junior Science Symposium, I was privileged to hear a talk by Robert Ferguson, a retired crime scene investigator.  His talk, “Real Life Crime Scene Investigation vs. TV’s CSI” focused on the science behind crime scene investigation, particularly the advances that have been made over the last 75 years or so.  The case he chose to showcase was the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.  I loved that I was at a science symposium and had a student turn around and whisper, “Just like in The Trial!” a few times during the talk.

That’s why I am glad that Jen Bryant decided to write about The Trial for her guest post today.  I love learning about the STEM work behind an author’s writing!

Technology & History: Telegraphs, Transatlantic flights, and a Missing Toddler.

It’s probably not the best etiquette to begin this post by quoting a previous one, but since I was never big on etiquette anyway, I’m doing just that:

“Science and literature, math and writing—I think sometimes we focus too much on the differences between these disciplines and not enough on their beautiful cohesiveness. It’s fascinating to explore how each subject overlaps and enhances the others.” (J. Khoury, 12-13-12 post)

Thank you Jessica Khoury! I couldn’t have said it any better, and Jessica provides the perfect segue into my own discussion of how science and technology literature and writing complement and enrich one another. And I’ll even take it one step further: In the writing life they are, in fact, interdependent, and in many cases, indistinguishable.

Charles LindberghWhen I write a work of historical fiction (The Trial: my novel based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, for example) the role of science, math and technology in the course of human history becomes hyper evident. When I visit schools to talk about that book, I pause in the middle of my presentation and ask the students and teachers to consider this: in 1927, LESS than one hundred years ago (which, in the course of human history, is a half-blink), no one had yet flown solo across the Atlantic Ocean. This year, 2012, we’re retiring the Space Shuttle! Putting those two things side by side should help us realize the ever-accelerating rate of technology and how it affects everything we do.) At the time that Charles Lindbergh—a shy mechanic, a “barnstorming” 25-year old pilot who was unknown to the American public—took off from New York’s Roosevelt Field and began the 3,500-plus mile flight to Paris, many people doubted it could be done. When he landed, “astonished” and sleep-deprived at Paris’s Le Bourget air field, the era of modern transportation had begun.

NYC Lindbergh parade

NYC Lindbergh parade

But so much more happened on that day and because of that flight. Transatlantic communication had recently improved, and for the first time ever, a written message could be sent across the globe, from continent to continent, in just a few minutes. (Again, stop to think that today, we can instantly email our photo, using only our phone, to China or Ecuador.) Why is this so important? What does this have to do with writing and literature? Well, for one, Charles Lindbergh became, for all intents and purposes, our first true “celebrity.” Expecting to see no one but the airfield crew upon his landing in Paris, his “astonishment” was as much because of the thousands who gathered along the runway and stormed the plane, once he’d landed. Upon his return to the U.S., huge crowds lined the sidewalks along Broadway in NYC to see him honored in a tickertape parade.

Think about that . . . . Today, we have thousands of people whom we consider “celebrities” in fields from entertainment to politics to athletics. And yet—the concept of “celebrity” itself is based on the ability to share an image and a message widely and instantaneously. No communication capacity—no sharing of image and message—no celebrity. See what I mean?

My writer’s awareness, and hopefully my readers’ awareness, of this interdependence between technology and human events deepens as the novel progresses. Lindbergh’s life changes forever on that day. His quiet mechanic’s life is exchanged for a life in the flashbulbs of reporter’s cameras and a lack of privacy that he finds deeply disturbing. He accepts a job with the government, marries the Ambassador to Mexico’s daughter, and they have a son, Charlie Junior. Craving some sort of “normal” family life (for they are, in fact, the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of their time), they build a weekend home in the woods of rural Hopewell, NJ, where they escape the demands of their celebrity status as often as possible.


first ransom note

first ransom note

Then, one windy night, March 1st, 1932, the Lindbergh’s nanny goes into the child’s bedroom to check on him and finds an empty crib. Between the hours of 7:30 and 10pm, someone placed a home-made wooden ladder against the side of the Lindbergh’s house, climbed into the child’s bedroom, lifted him out of the crib, put him into a sack, climbed down the ladder holding the sack, and drove off. They left the ladder, muddy footprints, and the first in series of more than a dozen ransom notes.

This is human tragedy at its most intense—and yet all of it is true. And all of it, the kidnapping and the way the criminal investigation unfolds in the months to come (I would argue,) happens because of the presence–and the lack of–technology. Lindbergh’s historic flight, his immediate and ubiquitous fame, and the hunger of the American public for news of any kind to distract them from their daily worries during the Great Depression, combine to create a media frenzy around this event. That’s one view. You can say, I think, that Lindbergh’s fame (unwelcomed and unwanted as it was) made his first-born son the target of a heinous crime.


And yet . . . it took more than two years for the local, state, and federal investigators to locate and apprehend a suspect. Today, with advanced methods of fingerprinting, chemical testing, and DNA analysis, a detective could send a stray hair from the

Lindebergh case files at NJ State Police Museum

Lindebergh case files at NJ State Police Museum

baby’s nursery floor to the crime lab in Trenton, and be knocking on the suspect’s door in less than a day. Period. End of case. But because there existed very few reliable scientific methods of doing criminal investigation at that time (especially because the crime scene was not immediately quarantined and members of the household trafficked through the room and the house for hours after the kidnapping occurred) based on physical evidence, and because no one actually SAW who climbed into that window on that windy night in 1932, this case, and the subsequent execution of the suspect Bruno R. Hauptmann, the German carpenter accused of kidnapping and murdering “Little Charlie,” continues to be the subject of fierce debate.

This is just one example of how human history and technology are enmeshed, intertwined and interdependent. I could cite dozens more, just from my own novels and biographies. As Sarah pointed out in her initial post for this blog, many of us who write or who teach writing for a living, do not consider the humanities and the sciences as separate entities; on the contrary, as we research our topics and create characters, settings, and dialogue for stories spanning the decades and centuries, we’re constantly made aware of their interdependent nature. In doing my research, I cross back and forth over innumerable imaginary boundaries between disciplines that our educational system classifies as either an art/ humanity or a science. In reality, however, these boundaries are blurry waves of light— moveable, overlapping, and often indistinguishable.




profilephotoJen Bryant writes biographies, poetry, picture books, and fiction, including the novels Pieces of Georgia and Kaleidoscope Eyes and the picture book biography A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, illustrated by Melissa Sweet and awarded a Caldecott Honor. Jen and Melissa have recently collaborated on A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, about the self-taught African American painter who was also a wounded WWI veteran. A graduate of Gettysburg College, Jen grew up in Flemington, NJ but now lives in Pennsylvania with her family. To learn more:

Full STEAM Ahead is Back Tomorrow!

After a brief holiday break, Full STEAM Ahead will be back tomorrow.  Our special guest will be Jen Bryant, prolific author!


I am also looking to line up more authors for Full STEAM Ahead.  Are you an author with a book that involves science, technology, engineering, or math in some capacity?  I’d love to hear from you!  Please email me- thereadingzone @ gmail(dot) com if you are interested!

The Cybils are Here! The Cybils are Here!

It’s Cybils Day!

Today is one of my favorite days of the year- the finalists for the Cybils Awards have been posted! Be sure to check out the finalists in the all of the categories, but I am especially proud of the finalists in the YA category.  My fellow panelists and I worked really hard to come up with this list and I think it’s pretty awesome.  There were 191 books nominated in our category and we read and debated them all.  It was a hectic few months (and I’m excited to read some non-YA books now that I have time), but well worth it.  The whole experience culminated in a fast-paced Googlechat that was over 3 hours long last week.  It was insane, but in an awesome way.


And with that, I present to you the 2012 YA Finalists!  Good luck to the next round of judges; I am not at all envious of your position.  😉


2012 Finalists
Young Adult Fiction


by Matthew Quick
Little, Brown

Nominated by: DLacks

Boy21 got game. And that game is basketball, as played diligently by narrator Finley, sublimely by his girlfriend Erin, and almost supernaturally by the titular Boy21, also known as Russell Allen. Boy21 also has heart, as it explores loyalty, friendship, class and racial differences, and the way the past impinges on the present. But most importantly, Boy21 has soul, as all three main characters work to free themselves from the constraints and grief that dominate their lives, threatening to prevent them from becoming who they truly are. So much more than a sports book, Boy21 speaks to our common humanity, and to the notion that we must not live our desires, nor our fears, in silence, lest we lose our humanity.

— William Polking, Guys
Lit Wire

Code Name Verity

by Elizabeth Wein

Nominated by: Ana @ things mean a lot

A harrowing and riveting tale of best friends who find themselves at the center of the British war effort in World War II, Code Name Verity defies simple categorization. Verity, a female spy for the British, makes a simple mistake while on assignment in German-occupied France and is captured by the Germans. While being tortured for information on the British war effort, she begins to write her confession. An unreliable narrator, the depiction of a strong female friendship, extraordinary prose, and allusions to Peter Pan make this novel a standout. A tour de force of a novel, Code Name Verity is multi-layered and heartbreaking. It’s a book that will leave you whispering “Kiss me hardy. Kiss me quick,” and turning back to page one to begin an immediate reread.

— Sarah Gross, The Reading Zone


by Eliot Schrefer

Nominated by: 145lewis

Endangered follows a teen on her annual summer trip home to the Democratic Republic of Congo to visit her conservationist mother. When civil war erupts in the nation’s capital, Sophie finds herself on the run with a young bonobo ape named Otto. She navigates a war-torn country while struggling to protect her charge from a starving population. In a story that highlights inhumane behavior, we come to appreciate the communal problem-solving of the bonobos and the kindness of strangers along Sophie’s escape route. And at the end of this short novel, readers of all ages will find themselves speeding to the Internet and the library to learn more about these shy, matriarchal primates.

— Kirstin Fearnley, Sprite

I Hunt Killers

by Barry Lyga
Little, Brown

Nominated by: Kelia

A body shows up in a field outside of town, setting into motion a series of events all too familiar for Jasper “Jazz” Dent, son of murderer Billy Dent and the public’s favored heir to Billy’s legacy of ruthless horror. Jazz, concerned they may be right, starts to investigate the murder, using skills learned from his father. Jazz’s constant questioning about nature, nurture and, ultimately, destiny, combined with the hunt to stop a possible serial killer, make for a thrilling and deliciously scary read. Although the book contains a large amount of gore, the blood is never gratuitous and occasionally comes from Jazz’s hemophiliac best friend–and one of the panel’s favorite characters–Howie. Part true crime, horror and psychological thriller, the atmospheric and moody I Hunt Killers explores the dark, creepy corners of being raised by an infamous serial killer.

— Kellie Tilton, The Re-Shelf

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

by Jesse Andrews

Nominated by: Leila Roy

This is not your average cancer book. Narrator Greg wants readers to believe that he’s totally unlikable, but it doesn’t take long to see that his almost violent self-hatred is a coping mechanism for his mess of a life. As Greg navigates his senior year of high school, he also deals with the fact that his mother guilt-trips him into hanging out with the very ill Rachel, the changing nature of his friendship with Earl–a very short, chain-smoking African-American classmate, and the fact that college (and real life) is waiting just around the corner. This frequently hilarious and absolutely heartfelt debut by Jesse Andrews provides incredibly snarky, completely self-aware narration (“This entire paragraph is a moron,” Greg states at one point), fully realized characters, and a great deal of depth.

— Clementine Bojangles, Early
Nerd Special

Storyteller, The

by Antonia Michaelis
Abrams for Young Readers

Nominated by: Sommer Leigh

On the continuum of dark to light, light to heavy, Antonia Michaelis’ The Storyteller definitely resides on the dark/heavy end. But it’s also found on the gorgeous end of the scale, as it’s one of the most beautiful books we read this year: structurally, lyrically and emotionally. Flawlessly translated from German, The Storyteller is about a sheltered girl falling in love with a boy who is not only damaged, but possibly irrevocably lost. Michaelis incorporates Leonard Cohen’s lyrics into an atmospheric mystery that is reminiscent of the Grimm brothers, David Almond and Kevin Books. It’s tragic from beginning to end, but it’s also a fairy tale about love, forgiveness, innocence lost and innocence preserved.

— Leila Roy, Bookshelves of Doom

Theory of Everything, The

by J.J. Johnson

Publisher/ Author Submission

Johnson deftly blends humor and grief in this story of a teenager’s struggles to make sense of her best friend’s death. The witty chapter drawings (designed by Johnson) and main character Sarah’s pitch-perfect voice make The Theory of Everything compulsively readable, but the underlying veins of emotions—confusion, grief and even hope—keep this from feeling like lighter fare. Teens will understand Sarah’s desire to keep the world at bay with her “snarkbox,” but it’s the moments when Sarah puts aside the snark to truly face life that will leave a lasting impression. With a cast of characters that includes a tame possum, a wonder dog, and a maybe-creepy-maybe-misunderstood Christmas tree farmer, The Theory of Everything keeps readers guessing—and laughing—and crying—to the last page.

— Kendall Kulper, Blogging
for YA