The Book Reviews – Website

January 31, 2008

My Land Sings: Stories from the Rio Grande

My Land Sings: Stories from the Rio Grande

Author: Rudolfo Anaya

Page Length: 176

Reading Level: 5th

Genre: Short Story, Folklore, Fables


REVIEW, PLOT SUMMARY, & AREAS FOR TEACHING: Every English teacher must read the Preface of this book on pages 7-16! In these lines, the author portrays a genuine opinion about the richness of reading and story telling. The Preface is also important in that it highlights the 10 short stories that follow. Some of the tales in this book are from the Hispanic and Native-American folklore tradition, while others are original stories created by the author himself. Each story teaches a lesson and draws upon the culture of those that lived near the Rio Grande Valley. The lessons in this compilation of stories include parental obedience, death’s role in life, consequence of keeping secrets, saving for a rainy day, respect for elders, explanations of natural events, and the search for eternal youth.


Students will likely recognize the first story titled “Lupe and la Lorona”. I believe there is a version of this story in the World Literature text. This tale is about a woman (Lorona) who is threatened that her baby will be taken from her. She then runs near the river where she and the baby “fall into the water”. Some believe Lorona intentionally threw the baby into the water. The child is lost and the woman is left to walk along the river mourning for the loss of her baby. Lorona’s mourning takes the form of crying. The lesson is that children should not disobey their parents and travel near the river without permission for fear that Lorona will appear. The main character in this first story, Lupe, learns this lesson and several others.


“Dulcinea” is about a girl of the same name who wants to break free from the chains of her present life. She decides to disobey her parents’ orders and go to a dance with a charming man. The man turns out to be an evil spirit with hands of goat hooves. As punishment, Dulcinea is psychologically unable to move on in life. They say if you listen to the wind closely, you can hear Dulcinea’s crying pain.


“The Three Brothers” contains religious themes linked to the issue of greed. The family has three sons, two of which took the road of selfishness which led them to hell – depicted as a city. The third brother went down the honorable path and was led to a mansion – referred to as heaven. The third brother is rewarded with a full and prosperous life.


“Dona Sebastiana” is about a poor man, Baltazar, who steals a chicken then refuses to share it with the “Lord” and the “Virgin Mary”. Out of fear, the man does end up sharing his meal with “Death” – referred to as Dona Sebastiana. For the kindness to Death, Dona Sebastiana grants Baltazar the power to heal people. However, the man must not try to heal a person when Death is at the “head of the bed”. Due to his new power, Baltazar became very wealthy. Then a man named Don Mateo came to the healer because his daughter was sick. Even though Death was at the head of the bed, Baltazar healed the young woman. Death later took the life of Baltazar saying one can never cheat death. In the end you always lose.


“The Shepherd Who Knew the Language of Animals” is about a boy who, upon helping a serpent, is granted the power to hear the communication of animals. There was one catch: he could never tell anyone about his power or else he would die. With this power, the boy found out that a treasure was buried near a tree that he was at. People questioned where the poor boy got the money. An arrest was never made though. Then the boy met a girl who wanted to find out what secret her lover had been keeping from her. The boy was about to tell her until a dream came to the girl. Upon experiencing the dream, the girl came to the conclusion that secrets belong to the people that own them. She was content on not knowing her lover’s secret about the animals.


“The Fountain of Youth” is about adventurers who were willing to sell their soul to evil in exchange for eternal youth. However, evil did not deliver on its deal. Instead, evil trapped these adventurers forever in its prison. The moral: never make a deal with the devil.


“The Lost Camel” is about identifying people who are honest. The Virgin Mary is present in this story. An apple cut in two is used as the means to identify honesty in individuals. This story was rather simple.


“The Miller’s Good Luck” is about the role of luck versus careful planning in making a man rich. Two men in this story set out to prove each other wrong by giving some money to a man named Pedro Bernal. Pedro ends up losing some of the fortune the men give him. In the end, by luck, he discovers a diamond in a fish and becomes wealthy. Afterwards, the lost money from the beginning returns. The two men from the initial lines, still do not resolve their conflict.


“Sipa’s Choice” is about a boy who disobeys his father and his god’s wishes to take care of the fish. This request was the only one the god made in return for the boy’s healed leg. The boy grew too proud and viewed the teachings of his father as meaningless. In return, the god turned the boy and his people into fish.


“Coyote and Raven” is a creative tale about how man and woman came to live on the Earth’s surface with animals. It also told the story of how the raven got its black feathers and how the coyote lost its long tail. Furthermore, this story illustrated the reasons why humans fight amongst each other. I found this story to be the most entertaining of all of the tales in this book.


I like that there is a glossary in the back with Hispanic terms that were used throughout the book. This book would be great for students who tire easily with long chapters and lengthy books. The short tales can be easily read in 5-10 minutes.




REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

January 30, 2008

Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims

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Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims

Author: Clyde Robert Bulla

Illustrator: Peter Burchard

Page Length: 112

Reading Level: 4th

Genre: Non-fiction, Biography


REVIEW: The biography of Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims, begins in the village of the Patuxet Indians several years before the Pilgrims land at Plymouth Rock.


As a young boy, Squanto was deeply intrigued with the white man who landed on shore in the huge ships in the ocean.  He convinced his uncle, Chief of the Patuxet, to communicate with the white men.


Squanto was not afraid of the firestick—the white man’s gun.  So one day, Squanto spied on the men.  When one of the men fired the firestick, Squanto let out a scream and as a result, met the group of nine men.  Squanto became friends with the men, against his mother’s will.  Her female intuition was working and her fear’s were substantiated when Squanto agreed to be a guide for the white men, eventually traveling back to England with them for several years. 


Although friends with the white men, Squanto suffered from discrimination.  In England, he was put on “show” as a wild savage.  He was also bought and sold as a slave.  He eventually returned to America, but not before his mother and the entire tribe vanished from a disease that spread through their village.


I thought Squanto’s character was very patient and kind.  He withstood many hardships and although he wanted to get home, he accepted time and time again that his trip home was inevitably a long journey.


After his many years living in England with the white man, he found himself comfortable in that setting.  This is how he became such a good friend with the Pilgrims.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: This book can be used in the study of early U. S. history and Thanksgiving.  It has large print and is easy to read.




REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner


January 29, 2008

Forest Furnace – Wildfires

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Forest Furnace – Wildfires

Author: Mary Colson

Page Length: 48

Reading Level: 5th

Genre: Non-fiction


REVIEW & AREAS FOR TEACHING: Forest Furnace – Wildfires is another in a line of disaster books authored by Mary Colson. This book comes alive with vibrant action photos of wildfires in progress and the devastation they have caused. The book begins by exploring the conditions under which a forest fire can occur. A reference is even made to the Native American and Greek explanations for the origin of fire. An anticipatory set of questions are offered for students to ponder: How fast can a forest fire move? Are all forest fires started by accident? How can forest fires be stopped?


Types of fires are described. A world map details regions most prone to fire hazards. Fire speeds and dangers facing firefighters are also detailed. Fire focus facts pop out on the sides of pages showing statistics and information about fires that have occurred and their devastating effects. Wild Words (new vocabulary) is detailed at the bottom of each page. How fires are started, what chemical components cause them to burn, and what continues to feed a fire is covered in depth. Methods for fighting fires including water bombers, hotshots, smokejumpers, and backfires are also explained. This book offers great connections to careers connected with firefighting; after reading the story, numerous research topics could be generated


What happens after the fire is put out? The book examines the effects of smoke and ashes, the potential for landslides, and the effects of deforestation. Students are provided tips for surviving and preventing fires. The text naturally lends to connections with other cultures who, like American culture, are affected by fires and who share in the misery and devastation.  The last pages of the book offer additional titles for reading, World Wide Web search tips, and key organizations from which to seek information.


Overall the book is highly informative. So much information is packed into each section or page that the text should be addressed with a guide for students; or, reading the text for different purposes on several occasions might also prove useful.


Another great resource for teaching: cause and effect, vocabulary development, setting up an anticipation and reaction set, analysis of events and preventative measures, analysis of the effects of human actions on the world, sequence of events, map reading, part to whole, and classifying.


RELATED WEBSITES:  (great video resource)


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor


January 28, 2008

Shaky Ground – Earthquakes

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Shaky Ground – Earthquakes

Author: Mary Colson

Page Length: 48

Reading Level: 5th

Genre: Non-fiction


REVIEW & AREAS FOR TEACHING: Turbulent Planet Shaky Ground: Earthquakes is another in a line of disaster books authored by Mary Colson. What immediately catches the reader’s attention are the shocking and mesmerizing photos throughout the book. Section titles, vocabulary definitions along the bottom of the page, fact boxes, diagrams, and maps are excellent teaching and learning tools available on almost every page. This book is packed with information on everything from famous earthquakes, historical perspectives , the science of why and how earthquakes occur,  the steps rescuers take, and the probability of future earthquakes as well as a look at contributing factors.  This book is a fascinating, engaging, page turning read!


Teachers would find this a great book for going over just about any concept including: context clues, main idea, supporting details, causes and effects, part to whole relationships, sequencing, classifying, and much more. Having no experience with earthquakes personally, what I found most fascinating was the incredible photos and the real life accounts. On page 24, Stephani describes her experience stating, “I was fast asleep in bed. Suddenly, my whole body went flying upward. As I landed, heavy things fell on top of me. I thought I was being attacked. Everything was smashing up and down all over the room. I felt total fear.”


Students are taught the six steps to survival, necessary items for a typical earthquake survival pack, and the necessity for preparation and preparedness. The text even details how Japan practices annually by instituting a country wide drill to practice evacuation procedures in the event of an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. A captivating picture of Japanese students wearing protective hats really drives the point home. The text concludes with a list of other sources, valuable search tips and keywords, and an organization contact list.


RELATED WEBSITES:  (quiz and java enabled rotating globe),1082,0_583_,00.html


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor


January 27, 2008

Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered

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Harris and Me

Author: Gary Paulsen

Page Length: 157

Reading Level: 5.7


PLOT SUMMARY & REVIEW: This book tells the story of an eleven year old boy who has to spend time living with different relatives due to his parent’s alcohol abuse. The story begins with the boy, whose name we never learn, being dropped off at the Larsons, distant relatives he barely knows. Harris, from the title, is a nine year old cousin who is never without a scheme for an adventure.


At first glance I thought this seemed to be a different type of Gary Paulson book, but there is definitely a survival element here. The boy is from the city and the Larsons live in the country. The culture shock is immediately apparent and the boy has to learn to stay away from the back end of Vivian the cow and out of Ernie the rooster’s sights and to avoid numerous other perils he knows nothing about.


Paulson builds the relationship between the two boys slowly and in a very real way. I found myself alternately chuckling about the latest plan Harris had dreamed up and worrying if the boys were going to survive it. You can often see before the boys start what is going to go wrong with the plan, for example jumping out of the hayloft onto the farm’s biggest horse just like they saw Gene Autry do in the picture show, or hooking up the washing machine motor to a bicycle to set a new land speed record.


TOUCHY AREAS: The book is not for everyone. Harris is rude and crude and there are accurate descriptions of snot and stepping in manure and bodily functions.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: The book is great for making predictions and each chapter even begins with a little tease about what is to come in that chapter. It is also rich with colloquialisms many of which I had never heard and that I suspect are Paulsen originals. There is also an element of peer pressure the boy has to deal with. Harris is a force to be reckoned with and while he doesn’t ever change Harris, the boy does begin to make some decisions based on the idea of self-preservation.


Paulson holds nothing back. The characters are realistically drawn and the ending is touching and just a little bit sad. The theme of finding a real friend and a place you belong in the world is summed up in a few simple words the boy speaks when he is leaving, “…I had a nice summer.” I left the book knowing he was going to miss Harris and I might too, just a little.




REVIEWED BY: Sherry Hall

January 26, 2008



Author: Jean Ferris

Page Length: 182

Reading Level: 4


REVIEW & PLOT SUMMARY: Sixteen year old Dallas, is caught attempting to rob a convenience store at gunpoint. The judge offers her parole at home, but her father refuses and so she is sentenced to six months at a Girl’s Rehabilitation Center.


One of the book reviews I read for Bad called it an “absorbing, quick, read”. I agree with the absorbing part, but for me this was not a quick read. It was a gritty, non-blinking look at life in a rehabilitation center. There are candid discussions of drug use, sex, and violence including abusive relationships and rape.  The author spent some time interviewing girls at a rehab facility in San Diego and she has dedicated this book to those girls. Her characters are tough, street smart survivors who also have real fears, hopes and dreams.


The book chronicles Dallas’ journey through the criminal justice system and back to the real world.  Ferris does not wrap up the ending in a nice neat package. Dallas makes the decision not to return to her father’s home and we are left feeling hopeful about her future, but knowing she has a difficult road ahead. Dallas doesn’t pretend to herself that it is going to be easy for her to turn her life around. I would have liked for Dallas and her father to reconcile and for Dallas to live happily ever after, but in real life that just doesn’t always happen.


While I was left wishing for a little better outlook for Dallas, I must say I think Ferris got it right. From beginning to end, the subject is treated in a realistic straightforward way.  Near and dear to my heart though is the fact that while in rehab Dallas falls in love with reading and learns for the first time about the beauty and comfort you can find between the covers of a book.




REVIEWED BY: Sherry Hall

January 25, 2008


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Author: Paul Fleischman

Page Length: 83

Reading Level: 5.5


REVIEW: This is a play that has been actually performed by several high school drama departments. Paul Fleischman wrote it when he realized many high schools get stuck in a rut performing the same plays over and over again. He wanted something new that would work for a high school stage and the result is Zap.


How shall I begin to explain the premise? Zap is seven plays in one sharing the same stage; Shakespeare’s Richard III and 6 original plays based on well known genres set in different time periods. There is a British Murder Mystery ala Agatha Christie, a Russian play similar to the style of Chekhov, a southern Tennessee Williams type play, a Neil Simon inspired comedy, an avant-garde Samuel Beckett style play and a performance art monologue.


The play has a single set. The actors wear period costumes. When switching from one play to another, a loud zap is heard which is supposedly from a remote control. The stage blacks out and when the lights quickly come back on there is a new scene. As the play goes on there are intentional goofs where actors from different scenes end up on stage together as if by accident. The “improvisation” that happens in these scenes made me laugh. The chaos continues to the point that the characters in the plays drop their roles at times and address each other as their “real” selves. I should also mention that at the beginning of the story the audience is told that if they do not like the scene they are watching they should hit the remote printed on their program and that those signals will be gathered and tallied and when a certain number is reached the scene will change. This is part of the joke of audience control that is referred to in the play.


It sounds confusing, and I thought it would be a nightmare to keep all the storylines straight, but it was not difficult. Readers do need some schema about these different genres of plays though to appreciate all of the humor. Fleischman makes mention of this as well. That to me is the real challenge of this book. It is not a sit in your seats and take a part to read aloud type of play. The visual here is very important.  Zap is a quick, fun read that will need some advance preparation but should be well worth it.




REVIEWED BY: Sherry Hall

January 24, 2008

Love That Dog

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Love That Dog

Author: Sharon Creech

Page Length: 86

Reading Level: 6th

Genre: Poetry


REVIEW: It is funny how the title is Love That Dog. I really love this book. I don’t know if it is the yellow cover, the blue print, the poetic twist on prose writing, the point-of-view of a young student, or the connections to famous poems. I just really enjoyed reading this book. It was an easy read, however as with all poetry you can sit and think about the words/meanings for hours.


The book first caught my glance as being the only yellow book I have in my classroom. It also brings me back to an interesting observation I had last year in my freshman English class. I had this student who was quite “difficult”. We have all had them. After I disciplined him for inappropriate behavior, he walked away and sat down with his head on the desk. After about 20 minutes, I watched out of the corner of my eye, to see this student pick up Love That Dog and start to silently read it. I could tell he was actually trying to read it, because his lips were moving. Now this is a student that I thought would never, ever, ever, read a book on his own. But he did. I suppose it was the topic or maybe it was the poetry. I do regret however, that I never asked him about the book. Or, perhaps it was best not to ruin this “reading moment”.


I was surprised to find that this book is written all in poetry. It appears that a teacher named Miss Stretchberry has kept some journal writing that a student named Jack has composed. Actually, I am not sure if it is journal writing or simple notes made to the teacher about poetry. At first, Jack does not understand, nor enjoy poetry. However, as the poetic story progresses, we find that Jack indeed not only enjoys the poems themselves, but also some of the poets such as Walter Dean Myers. This book is great because it uses humor (such as when Jack states that Robert Frost has too much time on his hands) and various examples of “plays on words” to illustrate a young boy’s feelings toward the topic of poetry.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: I am going to consider using many of the dated entries from this book as ice-breakers for my class when I introduce poetry. The very first entry on page 1 is the best:


“September 13


I don’t want to


because boys


don’t write poetry


Girls do.”


POETRY CONNECTIONS: Jack’s poem titled “My Yellow Dog” on page 37 is very creative. Also, his letter to Walter Dean Myers that starts on page 55 is touching. The letter asks if Mr. Myers would visit Jack’s school. Jack’s final poem on page 86 is wonderful (especially if you have read all the previous pages). The book is supplemented at the back with excerpts from famous poems by Walter Dean Myers, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, William Blake, Valerie Worth, Arnold Adoff, and S. C. Rigg (who happens to have a great example of a shape-poem). Finally, the book contains 13 Literature Circle Questions and 4 activities that can be used in the classroom.


Sometimes beauty can be found in the smallest of places, and I believe this poetic book of 86 pages is one such example. It is a must read for all teachers and those who love or “might not” love poetry. Enjoy!




REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton


January 23, 2008


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Author: Sharon Creech

Page Length: 180

Reading Level: 5th

Genre: Poetry


REVIEW & PLOT SUMMARY: The cover of this book is very appealing. A clean white background with a shiny yellow/orange apple attracts the attention of the writer. However the title, Heartbeat, does not exactly fit with the front illustration. One would think this book might be about nutrition, health, or dieting. However, that is not the case at all.


The story is written in the format of poetry. It is easy to follow. The main character is Annie. Her greatest joy is running, and she runs everywhere! Annie also loves to draw.


However, Annie has fears too. She has stated ones such as war, being left alone, and dying. She also has unstated fears such as change and growing up. Many things in her life are occurring all at once. Her mother is pregnant, her grandfather who lives with her is forgetting many things, and her best-friend Max has good days and bad ones. In this story, Annie is trying to make sense of it all.


Starting on page 51, the author begins to use the tool of footnotes, for humor and effect. Annie has learned about footnotes in Mr. Welling’s class. On page 59, we are introduced to the apple assignment in Annie’s art class. The students each have a real apple from which to draw. They are to draw one picture of an apple a day for 100 days. The teacher feels that through this assignment, the students will discover the “un-ordinary-ness” of an apple. As weeks progress, Annie’s apple changes in appearance. The apple is a metaphor for change in Annie’s life.


The apple ultimately gets bitten into by Annie’s grandpa. At first, Annie is sad. But then she realizes that she can alter her project by drawing the apple with the bite in it. Each picture from then on would have less and less of the apple exterior drawn. In the end, what will remain will be the tiny seed. The seed is a metaphor for new beginnings, life, and creation.


The author enjoys the use of repetition. For example, “flip, flip, flip” give us a sense that we can see pages turning in Grandpa’s photo album as he attempts to remember his past. Annie is experiencing the pain and confusion her grandfather is going through. It appears that he has a condition similar to Alzheimer’s. Also, “thump-thump, thump-thump”, makes us feel as if we can hear a baby’s heartbeat in the womb of Annie’s mother. Annie is mesmerized by the fact that an “alien baby”, as she calls it, is growing inside her mother.


The quietist moment in the book is when Annie’s new brother, Joey, is born. Here he is lying on a blue sheet in the birthing center and not moving. I was shocked and did not know what would happen next. Fortunately, with a few puffs of oxygen, the baby begins to breathe normal.


In terms of more change, Max (Annie’s running partner) joins a school team. Also, girls begin to feel attracted toward him. Annie is not fazed by this and desires Max to be her running partner for a little while longer. She wants to hold on to her present friendship with him, still knowing that change is inevitable.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: This story is a simple one about adolescent change. I would use this book to talk about theme and poetic devices. On page 106, I was amused by the section titled, “Forbidden Words”. Mr. Welling, posted a list of words on the board that students are not to use: very, like, ya know?, uh, well, stuff, and yeah. I found this funny because I had come up with a similar list myself in my classroom. I believe I would add the words “stuff” and “cuz” to the list. On page 120, a “Treasure of Words” list is shown. Mr. Welling lists words such as thrilling, sensational, and exhilarating. These are to replace the forbidden words in class.




REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton


January 22, 2008

Crispin: The Cross of Lead

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Crispin: The Cross of Lead

Author: Avi

Page Length: 262

Reading Level: 5th

Genre: Fiction


REVIEW & PLOT SUMMARY: This book started out rather slow for me. It took awhile for me to get into the setting of England in the year 1377. It is almost as if the choice of words and language that the author uses in the very beginning does not reflect that of a young boy. After about 20 pages, however the story picked up some momentum. The book is essentially about a poor boy who is described by people as “Asta’s son”. Asta is the name of the boy’s mother. The boy does not know his real name. He also does not know who his father is. His mother keeps this a secret for good reason. One of the excuses she uses for the father’s absence is death from the Plague. The boy doesn’t question this since many people during this time suffered from this event. In addition to Asta’s son, the reader is kept in secret of the father’s identity for quite some time. In his community of Stromford, Asta’s son had few friends and felt very shunned. He does not know the reason why.


After a course of events, the steward of the area, John Aycliffe who serves Lord Furnival, makes up a story about Asta’s son breaking into his home. As a result, Asta’s son is labeled a “wolf’s head”. This means that anyone may shoot him on-site. Asta’s son runs to his close companion, Father Quinel for help. The priest reveals to Asta’s son that his mother named him Crispin and that she could read and write. Both pieces of information puzzled the boy. The priest seems to have so much more to reveal, but his time on Earth is limited as he is murdered. Crispin feels that it is his fault since he is a “wolf’s head” and sets out far away from his village with a cross in hand that his mother gave him. Another piece of information that Crispin and the reader are left unaware of is what is written on the cross of lead.


As Crispin treks away from Stromford, just ahead of his “hunting party”, he runs into a man named Bear. Bear is a very large man with a red beard. He is a juggler and plays the recorder for people’s amusement. Bear eventually forces Crispin to be his personal servant. The two then venture off towards the city of Great Wexly. When Bear and Crispin reach Great Wexly, Crispin feels that Bear is more than just a juggler. Bear engages in secret talks and dealings with individuals behind closed doors. It eventually comes out that some citizens are unhappy with the current ruling body. They yearn for more freedom, however talk of such things is considered treason in the eyes of the authorities.


It is later revealed in the story that Crispin’s mother, Asta, was most likely the daughter of Lord Douglas. Now Asta caught the eye of Lord Furnival who between the two of them bore a son – Crispin. Crispin is considered a “bastard” son. The current people in power want Crispin dead, not for any true crime, but for being a possible heir to the ruling party. To be more exact, if word got out that an heir to Lord Furnival (who is dead now) is alive, then Lord Douglas (Crispin’s grandfather) might want to stake a claim for authority. The individuals in high power in the area, want things to remain the same as Lady Furnival is currently in power.


As a side note, it is revealing that in the short time that Crispin has known Bear, he is more of a father to Crispin than his true father, Lord Furnival, ever was. On page 222, a theme among many of the townspeople is best stated by the quote, “no man, or woman either, shall be enslaved to any other, but stand free and equal to one another”. This is the type of revolutionary thinking that some of the people were engaged in. Again, these were dangerous thoughts.


Towards the end of the book, Bear is kidnapped in order that John Aycliffe may get to Crispin and kill him. Crispin eventually uses his cross of lead (with its inscriptions) as proof that he is of royal blood to force Aycliffe to let Bear and he escape from Great Wexly. The cross in return would be given to Aycliffe. Aycliffe agrees to this arrangement in the beginning. However, he eventually dissents. Bear is upset and “throws” Aycliffe to his death. Bear and Crispin are then allowed to leave the town after Crispin places the cross of lead on Aycliffe’s bloody chest.


We can assume that now with Crispin’s new found freedom, he and Bear will have many adventures and grow closer together. Bear never achieved the societal freedom that he wanted but he achieved something that he wasn’t looking for – freedom for a boy who deserved so much more.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: The book ends with 14 questions that a teacher could use for discussion or essays and 3 activities (map, writing, and drama) that could supplement elements of the story. This story would be a great supplement to a unit on England during the 1400’s as well as a unit about themes such as freedom and family.




REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton


January 21, 2008

My Brother Sam is Dead

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My Brother Sam is Dead

Authors: James Lincoln Collier & Christopher Collier

Page Length: 211

Reading Level:  6

Genre: Historical Fiction


REVIEW: I found this book to be an interesting look at what Revolutionary War in America and in Connecticut in particular might have been like. It was interesting to read about everyday life under such circumstances. The title leads the reader to keep turning the pages to discover whether or not Tim’s brother, Sam, will die and how. This was an intriguing look at innocence, coming of age, the harsh realities of war, and understanding that indeed there are two sides to every story. I would recommend this novel to a student particularly interested in historical events. The book’s main characters are young men; although, minor female roles are interlaced throughout the book. Hence, the book would likely appeal more to male students. The novel is sufficiently laced with suspense, intrigue, hints of espionage, and may even evoke outrage and disgust in the reader. This Newberry Honor book would serve as an excellent starting point for further research, discussions, and debates.




REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

January 20, 2008

Artemis Fowl

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Artemis Fowl

Author: Eoin Colfer

Page Length: 279

Reading Level: 6th

Genre: Fantasy


REVIEW: The New York Post review of Artemis Fowl raves, “A new thriller fairy tale that will grab your interest, no matter what your age.” For fans of the fantasy genre and Harry Potter like enthusiasts, this book would be a must read. Artemis Fowl is a twelve year old genius from a long line of criminal masterminds who plots to exploit the underground race of creatures including fairies, centaurs, elves, dwarves, and more. The plot twists and turns like a crime novel as Artemis plots to kidnap Captain Holly Short and to amass his riches. Of course, rescue must be attempted to save Captain Short and keep the world down under from being exposed to the barbaric human race who would only exploit and ruin the underground world as they have done to the world above. The race is on as the sun rise is nearing and the “riveting, magical adventure” is drawing to a close.


I found the book and it’s characters entertaining. Character types are everywhere from the weak minded pretty girl to the muscle man who keeps order by force. Captain Short is a strong woman determined to prove herself as the first woman on the LEP unit squad. The brilliant scientist and the old fashioned Captain types also emerge. Artemis even battles with his role as the son of a woman who is losing her hold on reality. This book would provide an excellent tool for in depth character analysis.


TOUCHY AREAS: Overall I enjoyed reading the book. Some of the descriptions of creature habits weren’t particularly interesting, but might appeal more to boys in general. However, I would exercise caution and provide this book to students on advanced reading levels, as the vocabulary and speech patterns effectively reflect what you would expect a twelve year old genius to sound like.


BOOK CONNECTIONS: Colfer has continued the series by recently publishing his seventh novel in the Artemis Fowl line.


RELATED WEBSITES: (this site contains a book-talk slideshow)


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor


January 19, 2008

Skeleton Man

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Skeleton Man

Author: Joseph Bruchac

Page Length: 114

Reading Level: 5th

Genre: Mystery, Suspense


PLOT SUMMARY: Skeleton Man is narrated by Molly, a sixth grade girl whose parent’s are Mohawk descendents.  Molly’s dad was a great storyteller and had shared a story with her about a Lazy Uncle who ate all of his own skin, thereby receiving the name, Skeleton Man.  In the story, the Skeleton Man eventually ate all of his relatives but one niece who was saved by a rabbit.


The relevance of the story comes later in the book after Molly’s parents do not return from an evening out to dinner.  Molly stayed alone at her house, waiting for their return.  After the couple was missing for a few days, her dad’s employer and the school became suspicious.  Molly was taken to Social Services where an “unknown” uncle appeared and was granted custody of Molly.


Although the uncle does not harm Molly, he does lock her in her room every night.  She is wary of his actions, so does not eat the food he leaves for her.  She has dreams in which a rabbit appears.  He gives her warnings and protects her as the rabbit did the girl in the old Mohawk folk tale.


Eventually, Molly tells Mrs. Shabbas, a teacher, her fears.  Mrs. Shabbas was my favorite character in the book because she became involved in helping Molly.  She believed her when the other adults didn’t.


REVIEW: The story is told well with lots of suspense.  Those who like mysteries and investigative work would enjoy.




REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner


January 18, 2008


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Author: Beverly Cleary

Page Length: 152

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Realistic Fiction


REVIEW: Strider is the story of stray dog that wanders into the life of a teenage boy, Leigh. Leigh keeps a journal of daily activities that he feels are meaningful (because they are either good or bad). As the reader traverses the pages through Leigh’s journal, he/she discovers Leigh feelings of insecurity, his struggles with their economic and living conditions, his feelings about his father after a divorce, and his struggles to find himself and realize his strengths.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: The book is fast paced and very well written. Characters in the story are easy to identify with. Leigh makes several references as he write in his journal to what his English teacher is teaching or has taught him (so the book becomes a wonderful learning tool for applying what you’ve learned and for reinforcing ELA concepts were it to be read and discussed in class). This book truly is a moving story of courage and one young man’s success in finding his way and in learning to accept others as well.




REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor


January 17, 2008

Crazy Lady

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Crazy Lady!

Author: Jane Leslie Conly

Page Length: 180

Reading Level: 5th


REVIEW: Wow! This book was very well written. The characters deal with a myriad of issues. Conly is an expert at appealing to ones emotions and helping the reader to understand motivations behind people’s actions. The reader becomes so engrossed in plot development that they might not realize they are learning a valuable life lesson: don’t judge a book by its cover.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: The story is an excellent teaching tool for looking at character development, analyzing elements of plot, and applying universal truisms (philosophical statements) to everyday life. The tone is sad at times, but the message is clear: we must take the time to truly understand each other lest we make false judgments, and we must realize that everyone has their burdens to bear and their stories to tell – our lives will be enriched if only we take the time to listen and learn.


PLOT SUMMARY: Vernon is a young man struggling to pass the seventh grade. In addition to his academic struggles are his personal ones. He struggles to feel important in his large family. He struggles to find a reason for his mother’s death and to find his way without her.  Vernon’s neighborhood is filled with colorful characters, most notably Ronald and Maxine. Maxine is the “crazy lady” who roams the streets in wild outfits and screams and hollers at everyone she encounters along the way. Ronald is her mentally challenged son who doesn’t speak and seems afraid whenever he and his mother are out. Vernon befriends Maxine and Ronald and becomes engulfed in their struggles to survive. Ronald’s teacher and social services are always checking up on them. Through his friendship with these two, the help of kindly neighbor who becomes his tutor, and the support of his family Ronald finds his way as he helps Ronald and becomes his sponsor for the Special Olympics. He begins to understand what love means to him and those around him and how far they will go to protect and provide for the ones they love.



 (GREAT teacher’s guide)


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

January 16, 2008

Mixtures, Compounds & Solutions

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Mixtures, Compounds, and Solutions

Author: Carol Baldwin

Page Length: 48

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Non-fiction


REVIEW: This is another wonderful science book that uses killer color photos and bite size chunks of information to help students learn about mixtures, compounds and solutions.  The book is full of interesting photos and graphics that will keep them turning the pages.  It is thin, and easy to read.  The short paragraphs will help low level readers stay engaged, along with information bubbles, inserts, arrows pointing to examples on current celebrities and situations.  Even Pamela Anderson is pictured in here.


The book begins with a little summary of what compounds, mixtures, and matter is, then it takes the reader on a little jaunt describing matter and the building blocks of matter all the way through exactly what the title says; mixtures, compounds, and solutions.  There is a “Further Information” page that will help students find links to sources on the web, other books, and search engine tips.  The glossary is packed into the two pages with very little white space, and the bold words are not bold enough.  It is a bit hard to read.  The final page contains the index which will help students, especially if doing a book report on this topic.




REVIEWED BY: Stacy Campbell



January 15, 2008

Big Mouth and Ugly Girl

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Big Mouth and Ugly Girl

Author: Joyce Carol Oates

Page Length: 151

Reading Level: unknown


PLOT SUMMARY & REVIEW: Matt Donaghy is a popular student at Rocky River High until he is falsely accused of threatening to blow up the school. The problem is that Matt did say some things he shouldn’t have as a joke to his friends and was overheard by others with their own agenda. The authorities are not at all amused and Matt learns all too well that there are some things off limits for humor. It seems that there is no way out of the trouble his “big mouth” had landed him in.


Ursula Riggs heard and knows the truth about Matt and comes forward in his defense despite warnings not to get involved. Her character and self-assurance are a good role-model. Ursula has found her power in thinking of herself as Ugly Girl, a strong, straight talking unflappable part of her personality.


The book makes a good argument for when to take a stand and when to let things go. Ursula speaks up for Matt because it is the right thing to do. They are not even friends. After Matt is found to be innocent, his family decides to sue the school district, which brings more bad feelings their way. One upsetting part of the story is when school bullies kidnap Matt’s dog in order to make him suffer.


Matt and Ursula finally become friends and learn about themselves in the process. The book also illustrates how rumors can get started and grow out of control.


TOUCHY AREAS: There are a few curse words and references to sex so as always read it for yourself first.




REVIEWED BY: Sherry Hall


January 14, 2008

Probably Still Nick Swansen

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Probably Still Nick Swansen

Author: Virginia Euwer Wolff

Page Length: 151

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Realistic Fiction


REVIEW: Nick spends his school days in Room 19 with the rest of the special ed. kids, except for his good friend Shana who just had her “going up” party for graduating to regular classes.


Nick is a character I fell in love with right from the beginning. He knows some things that being in special ed. means. He knows he can’t drive even though he is sixteen and he knows some kids won’t talk to you much even if you do know everything about amphibians. What Nick isn’t sure about is if he should go to the prom but he asks Shana and she says yes.


When Shana doesn’t show though you get a glimpse at how complicated Nick is. His sister’s death several years earlier and an accident that hurts his dog along with the disappointment about the prom lead to some difficult times for Nick. He wants to hide from the world, but realizes he has to face all of these issues in order to find peace. Nick gains a sense of self-awareness and we are left with a happy ending.




REVIEWED BY: Sherry Hall


January 13, 2008



Author: Alan Armstrong

Page Length: 191

Reading Level: 4th

Genre: Fiction / Historical Fiction


REVIEW & PLOT SUMMARY: Taking a look at the cover of this book, one may think that this is a simple story about a cat. However, this book contains three main stories.


The first story is about a cat, Whittington, and the simple adventures with his barnyard friends – such as Lady, the duck, Coraggio, the rooster, Havey, the dog, and Aramis, the race horse. In this book, the animals have dialogue with each other. Besides the animals who can understand one another, the grandchildren of the farmer, Bernie, can hear these creatures.   


This leads us to the second story-line. Bernie, the farmer, is one of those men who would take in any creature that others will not keep. He is a simple man with a tender heart. He has two grandchildren, Ben and Abby who attend school. Ben is a boy with a slight temper. He also struggles with reading. One could say his temper comes from the frustration with books. Whittington, the cat, makes note that he used to be the pet for a boy who struggled with reading too until the boy’s parents sent him off to a “special school”. Whittington was without love and support from then on.


The main character of the book is the cat, Whittington. To all the animals in the barn as well as Ben and Abby, he tells stories of the adventures of a boy named Dick Whittington. This leads us to the third story-line. These stories about Dick Whittington are told by Whittington the cat after Abby helps Ben with his reading lessons in the barn. Whittington, the cat, says that he got his name from Dick Whittington whose story has been handed down from one generation to another in his cat lineage. Whittington, the cat, says that Dick Whittington was English and lived a hundred years before Columbus. Dick Whittington had a cat that made him a fortune due to his rat-hunting abilities. Also, stories of spice trading and sea voyages flow from the cat’s mouth. Listening to the cat’s stories captivate all the animals as well as Ben who is learning to read better every day. Lessons with a Reading Recovery teacher during the summer also aid Ben in making sure he is not held back a grade.


TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: References to “Special Ed” and other labels such as on page 44 may raise a few eyebrows from the more conservative audience or immature student.


HELPFUL NOTE / AREAS FOR TEACHING: The ending of this book is very positive yet felt a little rushed. A lot of the information in the Endnotes is alluded to in the last few chapters. For those who like to skip to the end for a better reference of who Dick Whittington was, read the Endnotes on pages 187-191. This will give you a glimpse into the legend of the man upon which this story is loosely based. This book is part fact and part fiction. If you use the Endnotes along with this story, one might teach a good lesson about history and literature.




REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton


January 12, 2008

Sing a Song of Tuna Fish

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Sing a Song of Tuna Fish

Author: Esme Raji Codell

Page Length: 133

Reading Level: 7th


REVIEW: Esme is a fifth grader with a colorful childhood. Each of the seven chapters of Codell’s book reveal details of an adventure or mishap in Esme’s life. We learn about how she egged an illegally parked car, what her Chicago neighborhood was like, how she attended a very different kind of school and why she liked traditional schooling, her interpretations of love as a child, the death of a classmate, and how she was naïve and brave enough to risk stealing the Afikomen.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: Sing a Song of Tunafish is a strong teaching tool for journal writing. This book is written as a memoir and is therefore a great example for students of how to compile stories from their own lives. Students can see that everyone has a story to tell and come to understand the value in sharing their own experiences. By reading the book, students can also come to understand that there are and have been significant moments and stories throughout our lives from birth through adulthood.


TOUCHY AREAS: A caution about the book is that it may not appeal as much to older students and they may have trouble relating to the references of the times and at a seventh grade reading level they may be less interested in stories about 5th grade. However, it might serve as a great springboard for comparing 1979 and today and for relating to parent experiences.




REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor


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