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April 30, 2008

My Time as Caz Hazard

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My Time as Caz Hazard

Author: Tanya Lloyd Kyi

Page Length: 103

Reading Level: 3.2

Genre: Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Caz Hallard is a 10th grader with a less than stellar academic career and a discipline file that includes punching her former boyfriend. Caz is diagnosed with dyslexia (something her parents have trouble believing) and sent to a new school where she is placed in a special reading class to help her. On her first day of school, she meets Mr. Popular who approaches only to recoil when he realizes she is headed to the “special” class. Caz’s special education classroom contains a variety of students. Dodie is shy, less than fashionably dressed, and an easy target. Amanda, a foster child who has been in many homes, has a knack for trouble and soon pulls Caz into a world of skipping school and breaking laws. Caz’s parents are separating, her best friend won’t speak to her anymore, and Dodie has committed suicide. Is she responsible for Dodie’s death and can she save herself before she loses everything? 

REVIEW: This book is typical of the Orca book series. It is written in simple language, on a high interest topic, and the action proceeds quickly. However, the book seems to lack depth. Many of the issues are never fully addressed or developed. I personally find the messages in it disturbing – enough attention wasn’t given to the bullying that led to the suicide. Caz doesn’t pay serious repercussions for her shoplifting habit, and Amanda gets in with the in crowd by “putting out.” While I think these books take a Jerry Springer approach to an interest in “trashy” subjects, I am not sure they are strong enough morally to be worthwhile reads.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: causes and effects (inferred) beyond what the author presents, use of dialogue, examining stereo-types

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: most pages – suicide, sex, shoplifting, bullying, skipping school …

RELATED BOOKS: Orca series, The Shoplifting Game, Klepto

RELATED MOVIES: “CBS Afternoon Playhouse”, Portrait of a Teenage Shoplifter (1981), Rats and Bullies (bullying leads to suicide), Mean Girls


RELATED WEBSITES: (downloadable MP3 file of the first chapter)

REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

Everything on a Waffle

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Everything on a Waffle

Author: Polly Horvath

Page Length: 150

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: The story of Primrose begins with a fierce storm at sea. Her mother leaves her in the care of Miss Perfidy and takes off on the boat to find her father. Her parents never return and are presumed dead by everyone except Primrose. Primrose insists and asks people aren’t there ever times when they know something isn’t true just because they know it. In the meantime, Uncle Jack takes Primrose in. Her guidance counselor, Miss Honeycut, creates problems; she pursues Uncle Jack and wants him without a niece. Primrose finds a friend in Miss Bowzer who teaches her to cook in her restaurant where everything comes on a waffle. Accidents happen and Primrose’s fortunes continue to fall. She is placed in a foster home, loses someone dear to her, and continues to wait along the shore for her parents. Despite everything, Primrose refuses to give up on what she knows in her heart has to be true.

REVIEW: Everything on a Waffle is a touching, humorous story. The adventures and misadventures of Primrose are entertaining and at times saddening. Readers experience Primrose’s belief in her parents return and begin to hope with her despite the mounting evidence to the contrary. This is a great story of the survival of spirit despite adversity. Primrose, her friends, and family never give up either.

Of particular interest to some students might also be the ending of each chapter with a recipe related to its contents.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: descriptive writing and similes: ‘the feeling of joy swept through my soul like fire up a vacuum,” use of dialogue in writing, elements of plot, symbolism

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: smoking by Primrose’s mother and Miss Perfidy, children bullying and belittling Primrose

RELATED BOOKS: The Trolls, No More Cornflakes, My One Hundred Adventures, The Pepins and their Problems


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

April 29, 2008

The Story of Clocks and Calendars

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The Story of Clocks and Calendars

Author: Betsy Maestro

Illustrator: Giulio Maestro

Page Length: 48

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Non-fiction

REVIEW: Where do we get the concept of time and time management? This awesome picture-book answers these questions that many of us probably have thought about but have never asked out loud.

Not only does this book describe time in the context of the United States, but it also discusses the influence of time on other countries, religions, and cultures. This book definitely does not take a narrow focus on the topic! After reading this book, I have learned that different religions use different calendars. I have also learned that the calendar months of July and August were named after Roman emperors. The first calendars were lunar/moon then transitioned into solar. Farming was the catalyst for the creation/discovery of time and calendars. The author, Maestro, notes that in India, “there have been as many as thirty calendars in use all at the same time”. Maestro goes on to say that today most of the world uses the Gregorian calendar for official business even though not even half the world is Christian. Some people would like to see a change to a different uniform calendar, but none is anticipated in the near future.

Other Facts Included in the Book: Examples of primitive clocks are the burning candle, sundial, hourglass, and water/clock dial. The exact length of a solar year is 365.2422 days. The most accurate clocks available are atomic clocks which may have an error of only one second in millions of years. Finally, atomic clocks keep the official time here on Earth.

My only criticism of this book is that I would have liked to have seen some real photographs of the artifacts illustrated. In all, I believe the information presented in this book is very relevant and appropriate for high school students, however photographs would have given this picture book even more credibility.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: text features (captions, diagrams, charts, dates, glossary), sequence of events, cause and effect, symbols

RELATED BOOKS: Midnight Magic (evidence of the burning candle being used as a clock), Maestro & Maestro have written other books: Christopher Columbus, Colonial Times, & The French and Indian Wars

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Stonehenge, Zodiac signs, Chinese calendar

TOUCHY AREAS: Jesus Christ is mentioned in this text not in the context of preaching an agenda, but rather to focus in on the context of a certain time period in history. Hebrew, Roman, Muslim, Chinese, and Gregorian cultures/religions are also mentioned in similar context.

RELATED WEBSITES: (link to different clock activities) (giant list of links about time and clocks)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

Empire State Building

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Empire State Building

Author: Elizabeth Mann

Illustrator: Alan Witschonke

Page Length: 47

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Non-fiction

REVIEW: I was amazed at how much interesting information this “picture book” about the Empire State Building contained. Picture books now-a-days are under-rated. Many are written at high reading levels and the wealth of information inside them is endless. This book is one such example.

The idea for the Empire State Building construction started with a partnership between two powerful men – one of whom was a former governor of New York. Due to advancements in industrialization, the discovery that taller buildings were more useful, and the need for men to show off their wealth, Alfred Smith and John Raskob envisioned a building that soared above every thing in the NYC skyline. Their vision came to light after 19 months, 1250 feet, 6 worker deaths, and numerous economic hardships during the Great Depression. 

Two little known facts that I read about in this book were that Native Americans in the area assisted in the construction of the sky scraper, and the building was built in such a way that every office had close access to a window-view.

Author Elizabeth Mann describes it eloquently when she states that, “the Empire State Building was a hopeful sight for New Yorkers who watched it climb like a rocket from a hole in the ground during the Great Depression.” Even over 70 years after it’s “ribbon cutting ceremony” the sky scraper remains an architectural gem.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: text features (captions, diagrams, facts, maps, glossary, time-lines), compare/contrast (before and after photos, Empire State Building vs. Chrysler Building)

RELATED BOOKS: Elizabeth Mann has written books over other U.S. landmarks such as The Brooklyn Bridge & Hoover Dam.

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: (King Kong & The Howdy Doody Show, pages 44-45)

RELATED WEBSITES: (Link to a listing of movies in which the Empire State Building has appeared) (official site of the Empire State Building),,2184617,00.html (Interactive Slideshow and Video)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

Chasing Redbird

Chasing Redbird

Author: Sharon Creech

Page Length: 5

Reading Level: 261

Genre: Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: In the country-side of Kentucky resides Zinny Taylor, sister to too many siblings to count on one hand. She has a problem. Zinny has not found her voice. She has yet to discover the person she is. In a large family, including her Uncle Nate and Aunt Jessie, Zinny sets out on a trail to find herself.

Zinny is the oddball of the family. She collects countless items, is as quiet as a mouse, and always seems to be passed over by the boys. Even more depressing, Zinny feels responsible for the deaths of not only her cousin Rose, but Roses’ mother, Zinny’s Aunt Jessie. Beyond all of this, Zinny wants to be known for something more significant (page 52).

After Aunt Jessie passes away, Uncle Nate begins his own quest to chase his “redbird” sweetheart (Aunt Jessie had red hair). To put it less colorfully, Uncle Nate is so devastated by his wife’s death that he has delusions of her flying through the fields. He in turn chases after “her”.

One day, at the library, Zinny discovers a map detailing an old 20 mile Indian trail that leads from her house to the next town over, Chocton. The map fascinates her, and Zinny makes a decision to clear away all the brush in her backyard field. Zinny’s parents allow her to camp out in the field as she does her work for 10 days at a time. She is excited as this project gives her the opportunity to do something on her own away from the chaos of her family. On the trail, Zinny gets confronted by strange men, chased up a tree by a bear, and even pursued by her friend Jake (who is attracted to her). Zinny even discovers, on the trail, the reason for Uncle Nate’s strange behavior – Uncle Nate has been hiding all of Rose and Aunt Jessie’s possessions in a cabin nearby. The cabin symbolizes his locked up emotions and his grief.

Towards the end of the novel, Uncle Nate expresses to Zinny that she is not at fault for the deaths of Rose and Aunt Jessie. In addition, Zinny completes her trail project and is recognized for it. We also see a glimmer of hope that she will have her first boyfriend (Jake).

REVIEW: This was a simple tale about the search for self and one’s individuality (Zinny). Also, it is a story about how people grieve differently (ie. Zinny vs. Uncle Nate). The map at the beginning of the book was helpful as I read. Students that come from families with several brothers and sisters might relate well to this story.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: symbolism (trail, discovery, & chase, spaghetti & life), simile (page 16), figurative language (page 156), foreshadowing (page 27)

MUSIC CONNECTIONS: “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” by Don Raye & Hughie Prince

RELATED WEBSITES: (if you scroll down, you’ll see links for Chasing Redbird)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

Midnight Magic

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Midnight Magic

Author: Avi

Page Length: 247

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Fantasy

PLOT SUMMARY: Mangus, the magician, has been banned by King Claudio from practicing all forms of magic. He now lives quietly with his wife Sophia and his servant boy Fabrizio. One late evening, Mangus is summoned to King Claudio’s castle and escorted there by the king’s trusted advisor, Count Scarazoni. Upon arrival, the king orders Mangus to free his daughter, Princess Teresina, from a haunting ghost in the castle. Mangus tells the king that he no longer practices or believes in magic. In response, the king tells Mangus that he shall either help his daughter or die. (In the king’s mind, a marriage between Princess Teresina and Count Scarazoni must occur soon).

Conspiracy resides all throughout the kingdom. Princess Teresina feels that the ghostly image she encounters at night is her murdered brother (prince and heir to the throne). But we find out that the prince is actually alive and aiding the princess in the downfall of Scarazoni (who think the prince is dead). We also see an eager Count Scarazoni excited about his impending marriage to Princess Teresina. With an official marriage, Scarazoni would eventually claim the throne himself. Perhaps Scarazoni has had something to do with the “death” of the prince! On a larger scale, the citizens of Pergamontio want to see the downfall of Count Scarazoni! They feel he would be an evil leader.

Now Mangus is unaware of most of this initially because people in this story keep many things secret. They hide in secret, they talk in secret, they do things in secret. Mangus believes there has to be a reason for the ghostly images and that magic is not the answer. Rather he uses his skill of reasoning to deduce the answers throughout the book and finally comes to an answer that the “ghost” is Princess Teresina herself and her mother, the Queen (page 197).

However, Mangus does not make this knowledge public yet. During a riveting “magic show” to convince the king and Scarazoni that there is a “ghost”, Count Scarazoni reveals to all that he was the man who orchestrated an assassination on the prince. The count now has been exposed as the murderer and evil man all of Pergamontio has believed.   

REVIEW: This book was an easy-read. I am glad that it was because there were a lot of plot twists and turns. The story line kept me guessing. I did not predict that the Queen was involved in the conspiracy. The author, Avi, is a great story-teller.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: characterization, foreshadowing, theme, conflict, similes (page 17), vocabulary (sentries, parapet, portcullis, etc.), pages 82-83 and 100-101 are helpful in understanding the story

RELATED WEBSITES: (excellent site to teach the TEKS of characterization, theme, foreshadowing, and conflict)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

April 26, 2008

NFL Behind the Scenes

NFL Behind the Scenes

Author: Joe Layden

Page Length: 32

Reading Level: unknown

Genre: Non-fiction

REVIEW: This 32 page book about football is more like a magazine. From the colorful photographs to the informative captions, this piece of reading will grab the attention of most athletic students – especially boys. Also, it is short enough to entice even the most reluctant reader. NFL Behind the Scenes covers almost every aspect of the game – from the very first football game played in 1869 (without helmets) to the 2003 Super Bowl game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Oakland Raiders. 

There are even several black and white photographs from the early years of football in America. Page 28 shows a picture of a team of guys warming themselves from the cold on the field with straw. Now the author does an excellent job of covering topics such as training camp, the trainers, media staff, crazy fans, equipment, and coaches. Some of the photographs provided have numbers on them to direct the reader to the appropriate captions. This is helpful.

After reading this text, I learned that Walter Camp is one of the main individuals responsible for bringing football to the forefront of American life. Also, early football players actually played a game that was a combination of football, rugby, and soccer. Some team members during that time even sewed their own uniforms! The author stresses that football is not only a game, but a business. In addition, passion is a key to playing the game well.

I would like to have seen larger captions. Also, the concern with allowing students to read this style of book, is that they might focus only on the photographs and not read any of the words on the page.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: text features, sequence of events (pages 4-9)

RELATED BOOKS: Joe Layden has written many other books just like NFL Behind the Scenes, Amazing But True Sports Stories by Hollander

RELATED WEBSITES: (virtual tour – new Dallas Cowboys stadium) (National Football League official website) (football game with math skills) (Football 101)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

Saving Francesca

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Saving Francesca

Author: Melina Marchetta

Page Length: 243

Reading Level: 5


REVIEW: Francesca is one of 30 girl students at the newly co-ed St. Sebastian’s School. St. Sebastian’s has 750 male students. The school is obviously a high school though it is set in Australia and so the terminology used is a little different. The interplay between the students is unmistakable and crosses all cultural barriers though.


Francesca does not enjoy St. Sebastian’s and likes it even less when she quite accidentally becomes the spokesperson for making things fair for the girls. Francesca’s personal life is strained and difficult too, making her school problems even harder to handle. Francesca’s mother has become clinically depressed and her condition is misunderstood and approached incorrectly by almost everyone in Francesca’s extended family. Her father is at the end of his rope and Francesca is terribly worried about her mother and her younger brother Luca.


TOUCHY AREAS: I enjoyed the book very much, but there is a very liberal sprinkling of curse words and topics some may be a little uncomfortable with. Make sure this is right for your class and if it is be ready for an enjoyable read.




REVIEWED BY: Sherry Hall

April 25, 2008

James and the Giant Peach

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James and the Giant Peach

Author: Roald Dahl

Page Length: 126  

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fairy Tale                

PLOT SUMMARY: James Henry Trotter is a young boy who loses his parents when they are eaten by a rhinoceros. He is doomed to live with his terrible aunts, Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker.  The two aunts are mean and abusive to him. 

James’ luck changes, however, when he drops some magic crystals into the ground.  The result of the spillage of the crystals is that a giant peach grows as big as a house.  When the aunts try to make money from people coming to look at the peach, James discovers a hole in the peach and crawls into a tunnel.

It is then, that James’ fairy tale adventure begins.  Inside the peach, he discovers there are a giant ladybug, centipede, spider, earthworm, silkworm, and grasshopper.  They had contact with the crystals which enlarged them the way it did the peach. 

Inside the peach, the animals and James bond.  They have several adventures after the peach rolls down the hill and crushes Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker.  The peach and party roll into the ocean and are attacked by sharks.  James has the idea for the spider and silkworm to make string so that he can lasso seagulls and they will rescue the sinking peach by lifting the peach into the air. The group eventually land in New York City where they all become very successful.

REVIEW: This book is fun and filled with magic.  It would be enjoyable for elementary students, but I think the content is immature for the high school student.  Within the book, Dahl incorporates poems which could be used in the teaching of poetry writing.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Poetry, Figurative Language, Characters, Voice, Mood and Tone

TOUCHY AREAS: The aunts are verbally and physically abusive in their treatment of James.

RELATED BOOKS: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Witches

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: James and the Giant Peach – movie


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

April 23, 2008

Emergency Room

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Emergency Room

Author: Caroline B. Cooney

Page Length: 213

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: The story takes place on an ordinary day during the hours of 6:00pm and 9:00pm. The setting shifts between a city college campus, a major highway, a city street, and a city hospital. The settings themselves are generic however the characters and what happens to them are not. The story flows in a time sequence with shifts from one setting and character’s issue to the next.

Jersey is a college student who, on her way to buy some shoes, is caught in the middle of a gun fight between local gang members. She is rushed to the emergency room. She eventually makes it, and at the end of the story, is resting in the ICU.

Anna Maria is a young girl who is in charge of taking care of her two siblings (Yasmin and Jose). She finds herself without electricity and TV in her apartment. Anna Maria ventures out to the emergency room for the comfort of those things in which she does not have. However, she does not expect to be caught in the middle of gang activity in the E.R. while enjoying the nice air-conditioning!

Alec is a young man who borrows his friend’s motorcycle for a brief trip, yet drives a little too far off course. He subsequently crashes head-on into the pavement and later dies in the hospital.

Roo is a young single mother of twins (Cal & Val). She is without much support from her family as she has decided to live in the city away from mom and dad. Roo decides to take a trip to the E.R. (faking a fever with one of her children) in order to gain some relief from them. During her stay in the E.R., one of Roo’s babies is kidnapped by a gang member (Dunk) in an attempt to confront another rival gang member behind the nurse’s desk. Dunk is unsuccessful in his venture, eventually tossing Roo’s baby off to a volunteer worker, Seth.

Seth is one of the main characters in the book, along with Diana. Both are volunteer workers at the hospital, hoping to gain real-life experience for their futures. As the story progresses, their mild flirting increases while Seth and Diana realize that in the midst of chaos and stressful situations, companionship is important.      

REVIEW: I really enjoy the author’s writing style, as it is easy to comprehend and follow. The use of many characters and settings makes for a varied story-line. Not only was this book filled with action, it also provided some great descriptions of a hospital. There were many aspects of a hospital environment that I was unfamiliar with, and I felt that after reading this story, I am much more knowledgeable of the E.R. A good book for me is one in which the action is fast-paced, yet new knowledge is acquired. This story would fall into such a category. The reader must read pages 28-33 which paint a vivid description of Anna Maria’s environment. Each chapter ending of this book left me wanting to immediately read the next chapter. A must read for kids and adults!

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Point-of-View (shift from chapter to chapter), setting/descriptions (page 76 & 145), similes (pages 40, 65, 81, 91, & 149), abbreviations (ex. GSW, SOB), and how to write a good ending to a chapter

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: the descriptions of the wounded are not too dramatic as to offend the average reader

RELATED BOOKS: Flight #116 is Down (author’s writing style of tragic events)

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: TV Shows: E.R., Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago Hope

RELATED WEBSITES: (how an emergency room works) (report on emergency rooms) (Emergency Room Nurse blog)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

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From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Author: E.L. Konigsburg

Page Length: 182

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Realistic Fiction / Mystery

PLOT SUMMARY: Claudia, a sixth grader and the oldest and only female child in her house, decides that in order to be appreciated, she must run away. Claudia is a careful planner and realizes that she isn’t just going to run away randomly to run to somewhere specific instead. She plans her escape to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Convincing her younger, spend thrift brother Jaime to accompany her, they fail to get off the bus to school and the adventure begins. The book details the exploits of the children as they hide inside the museum; the reader learns how they outwit the guards, where they stay the night, and even how they eat and clean their clothes. While in the museum, the children become engrossed in solving the mystery of the angel statue. Their search for clues involves library research, newspaper articles, and even a secret letter written to the director of the museum. Finally, the children decide to visit the former owner of the statue, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Mrs. Frankweiler a meticulous historian has records on just about everything. As she befriends the children and the mystery begins to unravel, the children don’t realize how close to the truth and home they really are.

REVIEW: I enjoyed reading this book. I loved that the children ran away simply to be appreciated and that Claudia wanted to be running to something. Konigsburg does an excellent job of making the mystery educational and thought provoking. This book makes the reader want to visit the Met just to examine how Claudia and Jaime survived – and to ask themselves could it be done today? Having an understanding and a love for art and art museums also helps one appreciate the story line and the quest to discover the truth. The book will probably appeal more to 3rd through 6th graders.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Sequence of events, conclusions, generalizations, and predictions, and reading varied sources, Compare and contrast (Claudia and Jaime)

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: The subject of running away and the fact that the children do not ever think about how their parents and siblings might be feeling without them.

RELATED BOOKS: The Phantom Tollbooth, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, The View from Saturday, Michelangelo by Mike Venezia

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: 1995 Movie – of the same name- starring Lauren Bacall

Works of Michelangelo


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor


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Author: Angela Johnson

Page Length: 138

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Fourteen year old Marley loves her life in Heaven, Ohio. She has a loving brother, Butchy and Momma and Pops by her side. Uncle Jack drifts from place to place with his dog, Boy. He writes Marley beautiful letters of his adventures and his hopes for her. Everything seems perfect in Heaven; yet, outside of Heaven, there is turmoil as churches are being burned. One day a letter arrives in the  mail asking for records of baby Monna’s baptism. Marley discovers that she is baby Monna and that Momma and Pops aren’t really her parents after all. Marley’s world is turned upside down when she discovers that her mother died when she was a baby and her father has never quite recovered. She finds solace in her friendships with Shuggy and Bobby. Marley withdraws because she feels betrayed; Momma, Pops, and “Uncle” Jack have withheld the truth all these years. Yet, Marley learns that love makes a family – and that her family has only acted out of love all along.   

REVIEW: This book was very touching. Not only does the reader experience the raw emotions of Marley who is angry that she was not told the truth, but we also experience the love and support of those around her. Uncle Jack’s letters reveal the depths of his emotions that he has not been able to express in person. Bobby becomes a strong role model for young men – he is raising his daughter all on his own and overcoming the obstacles of the past. Shuggy’s life looks perfect – yet we learn that things are not always as they seem. The characters were strong and excellently developed. The ending is beautiful (you might even get a little teary eyed). I would recommend this book as a read for all students. Heaven was the recipient of a Coretta Scott King Award.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: literary techniques: flashback, metaphors “It was one of those nights that started to go down before the sun did.”, writing styles: letters, theme, setting, characters, writing about secrets (why do we have them?)


RELATED BOOKS: The First Part Last, A Cool Moonlight, Maniac Magee

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Les Miserables, Michael W. Smith: Place in this World


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

April 22, 2008

Lily B. on the brink of cool

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Lily B. on the brink of cool

Author: Elizabeth Cody Kimmel

Page Length: 245

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Lily Blennerhasset is a fourteen year old who is utterly bored with her unexciting, creativity stifling, run of the mill life. Of course her parents are to blame. Summer has begun. For the first time ever, Lily’s best friend has gone to a new camp without her. Lily is completely and utterly bored and all she has to look forward to is her summer assignment: writing in her journal. Things change when she meets her worldly, fashionable, completely cool relatives at Delia’s wedding. Lily finds a side of herself she never knew existed. She longed to be just like the LeBlancs who are vegetarians and totally in to saving the planet and defying all the customary rules. Lily becomes so consumed by her desire to be like and spend time with the LeBlancs that she sneaks around to see them and unbeknownst to her parents loans them the use of the summer house. Everything begins to fall apart when Lily realized that they aren’t who they seemed. Was Lily taken for a ride? Will the LeBlancs win in court? Will her parents ever forgive her? Lily ends the summer learning more about how “cool” she and her family really are.

REVIEW: This book had a wonderful message about discovering who we are and realizing how much we are loved by our family and friends (and how unconditional that love is). Lily learns a great lesson about true friendship and about looking for answers within not through seeking to be like someone else. The book is written as journal entries– which are a fabulous reinforcement for showing students how to journal daily and even how to take an alternative approach to an essay topic. The book was engaging and the lessons learned worth the read. Girls would likely enjoy the book more than boys would. Of particular interest is the point of view of the story – the main character “talks” directly to the reader throughout the book.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: cause and effects (Lily’s actions and decisions), compare and contrast (Karma and Lily), making predictions and generalizations, sequence

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: None really – she defies her parents and charges up the credit card without permission — but the repercussions follow and a lesson is learned

RELATED BOOKS: Lily B. on the Brink of Love, Lily B. on the Brink of Paris

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Thirteen Going on 30 (similar lesson – wishing for what you don’t have only to discover what you did have was what you really wanted in the first place), Song by Cinderella: Don’t Know What You’ve Got (Till It’s Gone)


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

Arilla Sun Down

Arilla Sun Down

Author: Virginia Hamilton

Page Length: 296

Reading Level: unknown

Genre: Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: This story chronicles the young life of Arilla Adams and her Black/Native American family: her mother (the dancer), her father (the nomad), and her brother Jack Sun Run (who she bickers with). Even from the beginning, Jack Sun Run is not fond of his sister, but as the story progresses we see that he indeed cares for her. Arilla is a very reflective child, especially when it comes to her family. She is constantly comparing herself to them as if trying to fit herself in. Early on in the book, Arilla’s family moves to a new town near Dayton, Ohio. Arilla tries to fit in here, however her presence is overshadowed by her attractive personable brother, her talented mother, and her respected father. Birthdays and outings to the skating rink occur as the story moves. During this time, Arilla is still searching for meaning in her life. She is also searching for a “name”. The story concludes with Arilla saving her brother’s life which in turn “knocks Jack down a peg”. We also find out here that Jack saved Arilla’s life when she was very, very young. Because of this, Arilla realizes that Jack Sun Run truly cares for her. Arilla’s new name, “Arilla Sun Down” is a reflection of her bond with her brother and her power as an individual. 

REVIEW: I found this book to be rather confusing and choppy. In certain chapters, the main character Arilla, talks in broken English. The first chapter is not engaging at all. I found it hard to stay focused with this book. The various Native American names associated with the main characters added to the confusion. Students will have a hard time staying attentive with this story – especially if they are male. The main character is a younger sister who complains often about her older, more popular brother. I found Arilla to be reflective, yet annoying at times. Chapter 5 was especially unclear to me.  I did find the use of symbolism effective. 

AREAS FOR TEACHING: similes (page 93), re-reading a chapter when one does not comprehend well, symbolism (moon, sun, circle), page 150-151 lists a great speech about equality

RELATED BOOKS: Summer of My German Soldier (sibling jealousy/animosity), House on Mango Street (view-point of young girl, culture, customs)


REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

April 21, 2008

Something Girl

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Something Girl

Author: Beth Goobie

Page Length: 105

Reading Level: 2.8

Genre: Fiction


PLOT SUMMARY: Something Girl is the story of Sophie, a teenager who lives in mortal fear of her father.  For years she has been walking on eggshells, covering for her father’s physical abuse, and trying to win his love.  Even her mother cannot seem to help her.  Instead of defending Sophie, she stares out the window and nurses her pain with alcohol each day. Yet everything changes when Sophie’s friend, Jujube, starts to ask questions about her mysterious injuries. 


Jujube is an imaginative twelve-year old with two different colored eyes.  She’s convinced that aliens are trying to communicate with her, and she really looks up to Sophie.  Though the girls are three years apart in age, they are inseparable.  


One day, Jujube finds Sophie in their secret fort.  She is beaten, bloody and can’t move.  Jujube discovers the truth about Sophie’s injuries, and decides that she must speak up.


At first Sophie is frightened and angry.  She’s scared that her father will take his frustration out on her, but a social worker reassures her that she is now safe.  Sophie goes to live in a group home while her mother enters rehab to treat her alcoholism.


In the end, Sophie comes to terms with the pain that sudden life changes can bring.  But she also understands that these changes are a source of hope for her future. Throughout the book she hears her father’s angry voice tell her that she is a “nothing girl”, yet in the end she realizes that she is worth something.


REVIEW: Something Girl is one of the Orca Sounding books, and so it’s great for teens reading at the elementary level.  It’s also a good book for students who enjoy realistic fiction. Personally, I didn’t enjoy this read as much as some of the other Orca books.  For example, the alien subplot seemed out of place in the story.  Yet there were two things I did like about Something Girl.  First, I thought it was neat that Sophie and Jujube appear in another Orca book: Sticks and Stones.  Also, I felt the ending was very realistic.  Beth Goobie didn’t deliver a perfect solution to Sophie’s problem.  Instead, the reader sees that doing the right thing can be both painful and rewarding. In conclusion, if you have a student hooked on the Orca Sounding’s series they will probably also enjoy this book.


TOUCHY AREAS: This book touches upon physical and emotional abuse. There is a violent scene between Sophie and her father that begins on p.53.   During this scene her father also uses the word “goddam”.


RELATED BOOKS: Sticks and Stones




REVIEWED BY: Jennifer John


The View From Saturday

The View from Saturday

Author: E. L. Konigsburg

Page Length: 163

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: This book details the story of The Souls and their teacher Mrs. Olinski (a paraplegic returning to teaching after ten years) . The Souls, otherwise known as Nadia, Noah, Ethan, and Julian, are four sixth graders with interconnected lives and a depth of friendship beyond their years. Mrs. Olinski must put together an academic team; she chooses the Souls (all four from her classroom). The Souls are brought together each Saturday for tea at Sillington House. As the academic competition heats up, the reader learns through flashbacks how the team members’ lives are intertwined. Each soul (including Mrs. Olinski) finds solace and strength in their relationship. What forces have conspired to bring them together? Will the Souls be able to clench the title?

REVIEW: This book was a light, heart-warming read. I loved the depth of the characters and how well Konigsburg wove their stories together. Finding kindness in yourself (for others and even sea turtles) is a great lesson for any age. I feel that the strongest appeal of the book would be to 5th through 7th graders; however, the character depth and academic rigor of the contest would appeal too many.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: voice, mood, and tone; writer’s motive, theme, literary devices, point of view

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: On pages 69 and 71 a few students treat Mrs. Olinski poorly by writing cripple on the board and making veiled malicious comments such as “could you write that a little higher on the blackboard?”

RELATED BOOKS: Holes by Louis Sachar, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli


Phenomenon with John Travolta (random acts of kindness)

RELATED WEBSITES:  (this site rates the book on positive and negative aspects) (activities to promote random acts of kindness)

REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

April 16, 2008

Summer of My German Soldier

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Summer of My German Soldier

Author: Bette Greene

Page Length: 230

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Historical Fiction / Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Patty Bergen is an outcast in her family. She is not particularly pretty (like her mother and sister) and she asks too many questions. She is a Jewish girl growing up in the small town of Jenkinsville, Arkansas where a German P.O.W. camp exists not too far away. Patty longs for some excitement in her life, yet more importantly, she longs to be appreciated and valued. She finds her wish not with her family but through her brief relationship with a German prison escapee named Anton.

Patty admires Anton and wishes to help him hide from the military. She brings Anton food and clothing as well as good conversation. Patty’s true desire is to escape – escape her family, escape her present life. She longs to start a new life with Anton by her side (page 120).

Anton understands that an escape with Patty is not feasible. He ultimately leaves Patty to journey alone, leaving her with sweet words on pages 154-155. The only other person that is aware that Patty has aided an escaped P.O.W. is Patty’s cook, Ruth. However, Patty’s secret is later shattered when she is questioned by the authorities and discovers that Anton is dead. Her emotions burst forth after she finds out this tragic news (page 82). As a result, her family is shamed and Patty is taken into custody for possible treason.

In the end, Patty is sent off to a reform school in hopes to start a new. Ruth sums it up best with her statements about family and love on page 221.

REVIEW: This book is not so much about the war as it is about family, love, and the lack there of. I was amazed at the way in which Patty was treated by her parents – so cold, cruel, harsh, and blunt. Page 124 shows the severity of Patty’s punishments. Page 186 shows how awful Patty’s parents truly are. Patty’s parents seem more concerned with the operation of their store than nurturing their own child (page 73). It is ironic that in a German enemy (Anton), Patty discovers the love and respect she could not find within her own family.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Characterization, Internal Dialogue (Patty Bergen), Compare/Contrast (Patty vs. her sister Sharon, or Patty’s parents vs. her grandparents)

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: There is some bad language throughout this book (example on page 83). It is primarily from the adult characters in moments of anger and frustration. Page 55 may be offensive.

RELATED BOOKS: Stepping on the Cracks, To Kill a Mockingbird

RELATED WEBSITES: (recipes and study guides) (enrichment activities)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

April 15, 2008

Our Only May Amelia

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Our Only May Amelia

Author: Jennifer L. Holm

Page Length: 251

Reading Level: 6.5

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: May Amelia Jackson is a twelve year old girl growing up in Washington in 1899. Life as a pioneer in a homestead near the river is both adventurous and dangerous. May Amelia isn’t a typical young woman for her time; she is a free spirit who is anxious to explore and experience life as her seven brothers do. May Amelia constantly tests the boundaries and perceptions of a “proper young lady.” May’s mother is pregnant; May hopes desperately for a baby sister. May’s mother falls ill, and May must care for the baby. One brother disappears and is feared to have been shanghaied, another brother takes ill with scarlett fever, and a murderer is on the loose. May takes action, and were May goes mishap and adventure are sure to follow.

REVIEW: The book is fast paced and enjoyable. May’s adventures are sure to entertain both male and female students alike (as May is often more like one of the boys). Holm brilliantly weaves realistic elements of pioneer life into the story; the reader witnesses ethnic clashes, daily life during the time, the limits of medicine, gender roles, and even the realities of life at sea.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Connecting text to self, Making historical connections (US History and pioneer life), Sequencing (events of the story, events of May’s childhood), Cause and effect (short life span during the time, May’s unladylike behavior)


– Produce summaries of texts by identifying main ideas and their supporting

details. 10.7.F

– Analyze relevance of setting and time frame to text’s meaning; 10.11.B

– Describe and analyze the development of plot and identify conflicts and how

they are addressed and resolved 10.11.C


Pages 174-181 deal with the death of a baby and the subsequent depression that follows

Pages 100-105 Grandmother Patience (a mean and cruel woman) belittles May Amelia


Growing Up in Pioneer America by Judith Josephson

If You Were A Pioneer on the Prairie by Anna Kamma

Pioneer Sisters by Laura Ingalls Wilder

MTH: Twister on Tuesday (set in Pioneer Kansas) by Mary Pope Osbourne


Oklahoma, Old Yeller, Little House on the Prairie (Kennedy Center Unit)


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

The Conch Bearer

Filed under: T — thebookreviews @ 9:32 pm
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The Conch Bearer

Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Page Length: 265  

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fantasy

PLOT SUMMARY: As the story begins, Anand, lives with his mother and sister, Meera in India.  His father has gone away and they have become so poor, he cannot attend school.  One day when getting water for his mom, he is approached by an old man. 

It turns out that the old man, Abhaydatta, is a member of a secret brotherhood, and is a master healer. He wants Anand to travel with him and be the guardian of the “magic conch”.  He uses his healing powers to heal Meera who had not been able to talk for years to convince Anand’s mother that he is sincere in his quest.   Anand decides to go on the journey with Abhaydatta; and, Nisha, a homeless girl, travels with them. The threesome is in route to the Silver Valley, but must defend themselves from the evil, Surabhanu, who is trying to steal the conch. 

They travel many miles together, embarking on dangerous adventures.   Abhaydatta, instructs the children to call him Dadaji, the Indian word for grandfather. The three actually bond like a family.  They are loyal and compassionate with each other.  He instructs them to memorize a map to the valley, in case something happens to him. Many things “happen” on their journey but they eventually reach the Silver Valley. Anand has to be accepted by the Brotherhood before they can enter the valley. After they enter the valley, they still have obstacles to overcome before they are completely safe.

REVIEW:  This book is full of adventure from the beginning.  I especially enjoyed reading the descriptions of India’s landscapes, foods, and culture created so vividly by Divakaruni. I think this would be a good class novel to read for ninth graders.  Although it is fantasy, the reader can relate to the characters in the emotional and physical choices they must make.  

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Metaphors/Similes (p. 58), Compare and Contrast (good and evil), Cause and Effect, Conflict, Character


RELATED BOOKS: The Mirror of Fire and Dreaming (2nd part).  If the reader enjoyed this book they may want to read:  The Iron Ring, Rowan of Rin, The Hobbit, The Vine of Desire, Queen of Dreams, The Mistress of Species


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Old Yeller

Filed under: O — thebookreviews @ 9:24 pm
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Old Yeller

Author: Fred Gipson

Page Length: 117

Reading Level: 6th

Genre: Fiction


PLOT SUMMARY: When Papa leaves his Texas homestead to provide for his family, 14 year-old Travis becomes the man of the house.  He must help with the crops, hunt for food, tag the wild hogs, and try to keep his younger brother, Arliss, out of trouble. 


As a boy who has already lost a beloved pet, Travis is first resistant to the yellow dog that shows up on their land.  But when Arliss bonds with the mongrel and names him Old Yeller, Travis is forced to put up with the creature.  At first Old Yeller seems useless; they even suspect him of stealing some of their meat.  But he soon earns his keep, and eventually Travis’s love, as he protects the family from the dangers of frontier life, such as bears, bulls, Hydrophobia (Rabies), and hogs.


One day, while Travis is marking the wild hogs, he is attacked.  His leg becomes badly hurt, yet his wounds are nothing compared to those Old Yeller suffers while defending Travis.  Travis, Arliss, and Mama trek across their land to bring Old Yeller back, unsure of what they’ll find.  Fortunately, he survives his injuries.


Yet, it is to no avail.  Soon after, Old Yeller is infected with Hydrophobia while saving Mama’s life from a sick bull.  And Travis is forced to shoot his beloved dog when old Yeller begins showing signs of the illness.


The book’s ending is bittersweet.  Though Travis is certain that no one can replace his dog, he is given one of Old Yeller’s offspring.  Finally, Papa returns to find that his oldest boy has truly become a man.


REVIEW: I was really impressed with this read.  Since it was written over fifty years ago and the setting was the 1860’s, I thought I would have a hard time connecting with the book.  Instead, the story really came to life for me.  The characters were authentic, the language that the author used was natural, and the story’s action created suspense and intrigue.  As is usually the case, the book was even better than the movie.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: Predictions, Inference, and Characterization, since most students have probably seen the movie. You could have students compare/contrast Travis’s characteristics at the beginning of the book with those he has acquired by the end.  We definitely see a transformation in Travis throughout Old Yeller.  You could also have students write about a coming-of-age experience in their own lives, or a time when they had to take charge of a situation which was frightening.


TOUCHY AREAS: The only touchy area in this book was the death of Old Yeller. 




REVIEWED BY: Jennifer John

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