Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth

I just finished reading Emily M. Danforth's debut novel, and I think this book trailer, an official one by HarperTeen, does an excellent job of capturing the gist of the novel.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

An Outdoorsy Book

I have very little to do with the outdoors, unless it's finding a quiet, comfortable place to read. But I do know that I have many students who are passionate about the outdoors and struggle to find themselves in books that explore these issues. That's my one beef with realistic fiction--I haven't found many books within this genre that these adventurous students can connect with that isn't Hatchet.

That was until I found Ryan Gebhart's There Will Be Bears. Tyson, the main character, has his hopes set on elk hunting with his grandpa. Unfortunately, his grandfather's health is dwindling, and his parents' decision to move his grandfather to a nursing home makes it seem as if Tyson's dream will never come true.

Tyson is like so many students: He sees a disconnect in what he is expected to remember and regurgitate in school, is encountering changing friendships, and is trying to make his family happy while becoming an individual.

While the first half of the novel is leading up to a trip that Tyson begins to believe will never happen, the magic in Gebhart's storytelling really takes place in the second. When they are finally able to embark on their trip, Tyson learns that hunting and all that it entails is far more difficult--both emotionally and physically--and rewarding than he imagined.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

What's Your Manifesto?

I just finished Francisco X. Stork's The Last Summer of the Death Warriors. I had previously read Marcelo in the Real World, and so I knew he was a trusted author.

This book is a story of an odd couple: Pancho is a strong, Mexican-American youth whose father and sister have recently died, and is bent on avenging his sister's untimely death. Daniel has a strong mind but weak body, as he is diagnosed with cancer and is not expected to live much longer.

They both meet at St. Anthony's, an orphanage for teenage boys. From the beginning, Daniel says that he was expecting Pancho's arrival so that he could also become a "Death Warrior." I know the idea of death warriors seems kind of childish, but I like where Daniel took the big idea. Death Warriors have a few priorities in life, and one of them is to live life to the fullest by cherishing every living moment that you have.

If you want a story that pairs two unlikely characters as friends or a story about two youth facing insurmountable odds, pick up this book. It reminded me a lot of George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men. You don't always get to control the cards you are dealt, but you can choose to make the best of the situation and to open your heart along the way.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

#WeNeedDiverseBooks Meets #NerdCampMI

On Monday and Tuesday, I spent the day with educators at #nErDcampMI. It was a great opportunity to talk books, writing, and literacy with educators from around the country. There were teachers there from North Carolina, Wisconsin, Florida, and even Texas!

One of the sessions (led by Cindy Minnich, one of the co-creators of #NerdyBookClub) allowed teachers to share a range of young-adult titles that would reach all of their students. We talked about how diversity in classroom libraries is so important, and we all walked away having added hundreds (seriously!) of titles to our to-read lists.

Check out the list of titles and topics here.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Personal Effects and PTSD

I recently read two books that I felt deserved to be written about together: E.M. Kokie's Personal Effects and Laurie Halse Anderson's The Impossible Knife of Memory.

I'd never heard of Personal Effects, but it caught my attention on the shelf of "What Teens Are Reading" at Barnes & Noble. I know that it's hard to find a book with a male protagonist, so I knew I had to get this for my students. The main character, Matt Foster, lives with his dad, and he can't quite seem to do the right things. He often gets into trouble at school, and his dad has these very strict ideas of masculinity: if someone hits you, you beat them up; you don't show your weaknesses; and you certainly never talk about your feelings.

This makes it difficult for Matt to deal with life, as his brother, T.J., was recently killed in Iraq. Matt's dad essentially shuts down any conversation about T.J., and he has also hidden all traces of T.J. in the hopes of preventing any conversation about him. This takes a toll on Matt because it seems like no one wants to talk about the pain that is so evident.

This book is a real page-turner. When Matt and his dad receive his brother's personal effects (I can admit that I did not know this term until this book!), Matt decides to go on an adventure to understand the missing aspects of T.J.'s life that he never knew.

I didn't know what The Impossible Knife of Memory was about before I bought it--I just trusted that Laurie Halse Anderson, one of my favorite young-adult authors,  produced yet another book that I would fall in love with. And I have to say that this is, by far, my favorite of her works.

The main character, Hayley, is sort of in a similar situation to Kokie's Matt Foster. She lives at home with her dad, an ex-trucker and veteran from the war in Iraq, and she, like Matt, is the emotional fulcrum. Her dad doesn't talk about his experiences, but Hayley often hears her father's nightmares in the middle of the night and has to cope with his, at times, erratic behavior during the day.

This story takes place during Hayley's senior year of high school, when she and her dad attempt a year of life off the road. But things get emotional and deep really quickly in this novel. Hayley endures and copes with her father's post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in ways that I could never imagine. She is brave, strong, and more mature than anyone her age should have to be as things worsen with her father's illness. Her lies to cover up his behavior and her frustrations at school all build up to make this story intense and one you won't want to put down.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Doing the Right Thing

As I sit at the Parsons Center in Lake Ann, Michigan, I just finished reading April Henry's The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die. It probably wasn't my best choice to read while I was in a cabin in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night. Needless to say, it was a spooky trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder.

I bought this book during the school year for a student that was struggling to find something she wanted to read, and I'm proud that she was able to finish it on the very last day we had Sacred Reading Time. It's the second book that I've ready by April Henry, and if you want a good young-adult thriller, I encourage you to read this or The Night She Disappeared.

Cady, or Cadence, is the protagonist of this story. All you need to know is that the book begins and you find her captive in a cabin in the woods. There are two men about to kill her, and she manages to escape. The book moves quickly and, before you know it, she is searching for the rest of her family (her mom, dad, and little brother, Max), all while evading two men and an abundance of others trying to kill her for something that she can't remember.

This book is a good reminder that sometimes things are more sinister and complicated than they seem. It also offers a glimpse into contrasting motives of those around us. Will we do what is right, or will we do what best suits our interests?

Better than "A Child Called It"

The only reason I discovered Nancy Werlin's The Rules of Survival was because I bought it for a student that was struggling to find a book he enjoyed, and it appeared on

This book reminded me a lot of Dave Pelzer's A Child Called It. While fictional, the story is the retelling of three siblings' experiences with their mother. The main character, Matthew, is recounting the tragic events of their lives for his youngest sister, Emmy, who was too young to remember all of what happened. I'm still not quite sure what exactly was wrong with Nikki Walsh, but cruel and inhumane treatment toward Dave in A Child Called It appears in Werlin's book, too.

This book stands out to me because it highlights dark moments where people feel hopeless, and then it shows small moments of success. It's a trying story, where I found myself feeling angry for Matthew, Callie, and Emmy and wishing that I could intervene.

And at the same time, it's also a story of acting, as readers find out how Matthew and Callie learn to adopt roles of the children their mother wants them to be. Emmy, the youngest of the children, however, persists in defying her mother, and Matthew and Callie sometimes have to pay the price. This book leaves you thinking about relationships and what matters. Could you love someone so much that you are willing to endure physical and mental pain to ensure their survival? Would you be willing to risk your own life for the possibility of a better one?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Every Teen Should Read This Book

There aren't many books that I think every teen would benefit from reading, but Ned Vizzini's honest story about Craig Gilner, a teen that admits himself to a psychiatric unit after contemplating suicide, provides so much insight into the pressure that all people face every day.

As a teacher, I see the stigma surrounding the complexity of mental health issues--and I think Vizzini acutely raises questions about people's reactions. From Craig's supportive, yet unsure, parents to his friends, whose actions reveal the strength and lack of empathy within their friendships, Vizzini explores how people perceive those who seek help or admit to enduring mental hardship.

Gilner's story is touching. He's a fifteen-year-old boy that faces what he considers to be insurmountable pressure. Where all the talk of schools is of the importance of numerous extra curricular activities, higher and higher test scores, and being sure that every student is well-rounded, I can see how students buckle under the pressure.

Much like Craig's anchors, which you will have to read to find out about, I began thinking about how every student's brain is a different map. Did I mention I think the cover art was a perfect choice? We can never understand the layout, but we can take directions if we listen to others.

I plan on watching the film next. I've heard mixed reviews, but I look forward to someone else's adaptation of Vizzini's story. If you want to read more about Ned Vizzini, check out this link. He unfortunately took his own life in December 2013.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Power of the Truth

I just finished E. Lockhart's We Were Liars--and I now know why it seems like everyone is raving about this book.

The entire time reading this novel, I couldn't make sense of the title. I don't want to spoil it for you, but when you get it to the end, it all makes sense. Well, as much sense as it could to Cadence, the main character. What seems like just a group of wealthy teenagers and one outsider all comes together to explore some pretty deep issues about life, friendships, relationships, and family. I found myself rooting for Cadence's, the first-born grandchild and heir to the family's wealth, and Gat's, viewed as an outsider by Cadence's grandfather, relationship and hoping that things would just work out.

When reading this, I began making connections to The Great GatsbyKing Lear, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, and every other novel that I remembered exploring patriarchy and wealth. But this novel is so much more than that.

Lockhart's book gets to issues of truths. 

It makes me think of Stephen Colbert's "truthiness," questioning who or what we take for granted. And Cadence explores this idea as she tries to recover her memory of a night that changed her life and her family's lives forever.

This book will make you question what's in front of you, and it will make you question your memories and the memories of others. Because of that, I can't wait to add it to my classroom library in September.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets -- Real, Intense, and a Worthwhile Read

I had never heard of Evan Roskos before reading Dr. Bird's Advice for Sad Poets, but I now know that he has a gift.

This book tells the story of James Whitman, a teenager trying to make sense of his emotions and family. Equipped with a copy of Whitman's work, he manages to find and write the poetry of his life as it unfolds before him.

Like Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith, this book felt real and it was honest. The ups and the downs were reminiscent of my own teenage life. Although I never hugged a tree to find comfort during stressful times, I know the feeling of frustration when a girl you like can't return the feelings, parents never seem to understand your point of view, and when you blame yourself for things that you could have prevented. I felt James' pain as he tried to figure out what happened to his sister, Jorie, who was expelled and moved out of her parents' house. I felt James' pain again as he risked friendships to finds answers to questions that he so desperately needed answers to. There were so many times that I had to stop and say that I, too, had been in situations similar to James'.

And this book served as a reminder that our lives are so full of poetry. My favorite part was the ending, but it wouldn't have been as meaningful had I not been along for James' journey of self- and familial exploration. The ending served as a reminder that we should, in Whitman fashion, celebrate ourselves and everything around us--even when we think there is nothing to celebrate.

I Told Myself I Wouldn't Buy a Book

Our senior prom was in the opposite location of my home, so I decided to kill time at Barnes & Noble. Before going in, I vowed that I wouldn't purchase a book because I had a box full of books from the recent Scholastic sale in my trunk. I held out for an hour, and then I gave in.

I walked the shelves. I had my phone in hand, and I was adding many titles to my to-read list on my GoodReads account. (Students, if you don't have one and your parents will allow you, sign up for one!)

And then I stumbled upon Kwame Alexander's The Crossover. The cover looked interesting enough, and I've been on the lookout for a while for a book that would interest my students that read Boy21, Foul Trouble, and other books that are about basketball. With my phone still out, I looked up the reviews on GoodReads, and I knew I had to get this book.

I ended up sitting in the parking lot for an hour before prom just reading this book. It is a verse novel, which I like because it allows me to help bridge genres for students. If they can read about something they like, they are more likely to attempt a new genre--even if it's poetry.

The book is about two twin brothers, Josh and JB, who are the sons of a former European league basketball star. It tells the story of their middle school basketball season, and it is broken into four quarters. It also explores the story of their relationship to each other, their father, and explains how they navigate the world. Basketball acts as a sort of center, a sphere, that helps "ground" Josh while he makes sense of the many changes taking place in his life. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

"[T]he unexplainable world is constant and forever marching forward."

I've liked Matt de la Peña since I read Mexican WhiteBoy and Ball Don't Lie. Many of his books are about finding one's identity, and that is something that I find to be so important in the work that I do as a high school English teacher.

This novel was unlike de la Peña's other works. It was intense, and it read more like a thriller. I found myself staying up into the night to finish this book. I wanted--I needed--to know what would happen to Shy after the cruise liner he was working on was hit by a tsunami. I found myself making predictions on every page, trying to connect it to other adventure novels I'd read and TV shows that I watch.

There are so many reasons why students should read this book. In particular, I like the way that de la Peña was able to explore themes of greed and class differences in subtle ways. He really revealed how complex human interaction can be, as Shy, the protagonist that lives in a poor neighborhood near San Diego, interacts with Addie, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. More importantly, the language felt real. I remember being a teenager, and the voice seems so authentic at times. You feel as if you are inside Shy's head as he interacts with characters and reflects on the dire situations he finds himself in.

I can honestly say that I'm looking forward to the sequel to this novel, The Hunted, that is to be released this fall!

You might like this book if you've read Yann Martel's Life of Pi, as it deals with survival on the open sea, or The Walking Dead, as the novel has a similar plot line where a deadly disease has begun to take over.

For more reading, check out Matt de la Peña's NPR interview here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A title that caught my eye: RATS SAW GOD

I didn't buy this book for myself; I bought it for a student. He was struggling to find a book that he wanted to read, and I was struggling recommending titles for him. I can't remember the name of the series he enjoyed in middle school, but he described how he enjoyed them so much that he read the entire series. I knew then that we had something we could work with. 

Using, we were able to enter in the title of his beloved series, and Rob Thomas' novel appeared in the results, along with another book. He chose to read the other text when it arrived, and I wanted to know more about this quirkily titled text. 

Meet Steve York. His dad is an astronaut, and his parents are recently divorced. Over the course of the novel, you find out that Steve is coping with said parents' divorce, and his grades have plummeted. Writing this novel is his counselor's last-ditch effort to grant him the necessary credit that he needs to graduate. 

The book resonated with me because it told the story of so many of my own students. They are more than just the kids I teach; they are people. And those people have busy lives with so many forces pushing and pulling them. Like Steve, so many of them have so much potential, but there are obstacles they must overcome--and want to overcome--in order to succeed. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Commence Writing about Reading

As a lifelong reader and learner, I believe in choice. Research shows choice improves student achievement, and students have demonstrated a remarkable ability to choose texts that interest them throughout the 2013-2014 school year.

Students and I want to keep those conversations going. 

Commence "343 Reads." The success of this blog rests upon the shoulders of the students that have graciously volunteered to contribute by posting at least one entry about a book they read during the summer.