The Book Reviews – Website

November 15, 2009


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Author: Walter Dean Myers

Page Length: 281

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Realistic Fiction, Drama

PLOT SUMMARY & REVIEW: 16 year old Steve Harmon is on trial for felony murder. He is accused of taking part in a convenience store robbery where the shop owner is shot and killed. Steve Harmon is accused of being the “look out” during the robbery. James King, the accused shooter during the robbery, is also on trial. Both boys are represented by separate lawyers.

Steve decides to write a movie script about his time in jail and his time during the trial. He writes his thoughts and reflections on notebook paper in journal format and records the actual events of the trial in movie scene format. Steve’s love for movie scripts has been nurtured through his high school education so it is only natural for this teenager to express his emotions in such as format. Monster shifts back and forth between Steve’s loneliness in jail and the tension in the courtroom. In jail, Steve is left with his own thoughts about himself. He is left to reflect on how others view him. The prosecutor has labeled him a monster, his father looks at him in a different light, and Steve questions if his lawyer views him as guilty or not.

Many of the witnesses that testify against Steve are jail inmates themselves that have motives for their testimonies. This plays in favor for Steve. Steve’s lawyer tries her best to distance Steve from the other accused (James King, the shooter). Steve’s lawyer feels that if the jury can see a difference between Steve and James, then possibly the jury will see Steve as the good one of the two.

In the end, the jury finds James King guilty and Steve Harmon not guilty. When Steve turns to hug his lawyer in appreciation, his lawyer stiffens and turns away.

Monster is a creative example of the inner-workings of the mind of an accused teenager. Is Steve Harmon truly a monster or a victim of circumstance?

I would recommend that this book be read and studied as a group. The organization (movie script format) may be confusing for some. It is a good story that can generate discussion on a number of current topics.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: imagery, vocabulary (ex. dispensary), reading in different formats: diary, movie script

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: language on pages 80 and 81, imagery of jail-death row, vague descriptions of sexual acts in jail

RELATED BOOKS: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

MEDIA CONNECTIONS: Law and Order – TV series

RELATED WEBSITES: (scroll down to the middle for 9 links) (scroll down to the middle for 6 links),M1  (copy of the book on-line through google)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton


Parvana’s Journey

Parvana’s Journey

Author: Deborah Ellis

Page Length: 199

Reading Level: 6.3

Genre: Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Sequel to The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey captures the reader’s attention from the very beginning. Parvana is alone in war-torn Afghanistan, her father dead, as she sets out disguised as a boy to cross the Afghanistan countryside in search of her mother and sisters. If the Taliban discovers her, thinking she is a boy, they would enlist Parvana into the army. If they find out she is a girl, they would punish her for being without a veil and without a male family member. She must then keep a low profile, not exposing herself to this danger. She sees death and destruction everywhere she walks.

First, she finds a baby boy lying near his dead mother and rescues him, feeding him the best she can with water and rice. When she tries to take shelter in a cave, she comes upon a boy about 9 years old, who has lost a leg to land mines. Asif is rude and angry, but he is good with baby Hassan, cleaning the clothes that serve as diapers and helping to keep him clean and fed. These three set out on the road until they come upon a minefield and a strange little girl who is taking care of her aged grandmother. The children rest here for a while until a bomb destroys their shelter and kills the old woman-then they take to the road again. Just as they are near death from starvation, they stumble on a refugee camp run by international agencies and are taken in, given minimal food and shelter. Their problems are not resolved, however, and more disasters await them.

REVIEW:  This book certainly displays the resilience of children who endure extraordinary circumstances. Ellis has been in Afghanistan collecting oral histories from women in refugee camps and this has been the basis of Parvana’s story. In one sense, it is a straightforwardly realistic narrative, but the circumstances the children face are almost unimaginable, certainly to children in the West. Strengthening the sense of reality is Ellis’s ability to capture the tension between the children–their bickering as their fears and suffering overwhelm them, their fantasies of safety and shelter, and their loneliness and desperate need for adults on which to depend. This is an excellent way for young Americans to understand the plight of the Afghani people.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: theme, setting, point of view, main idea and supporting details, characters, conflict,  plot, compare/contrast, cause/effect, conclusions, generalizations, predictions, audience and purpose, voice, mood, tone, narrative, writer’s motive, World Literature, drama, tragedy, and epic.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Sensitivity of children surviving alone crossing areas with mine fields and starving most of the time.

RELATED BOOKS: Habibi by Naomi Shihah Nye, A Little Piece of Ground by Elizabeth Laird, Shabanu: Daughters of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples, Under the Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Books by the same author: Breadwinner, Mud City, and Off to War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees.

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: The Kite Runner (2007), Massoud, l’Afghan (1998 documentary), Passing the Rainbow (2008 documentary), Massoud, l’Afghan (1998 documentary).

ART CONNECTIONS: (scroll down there is a short video displaying various pieces of artwork)


REVIEWED BY:  Tammy Leitzel

George Washington The Man Who Would Not Be King

George Washington: The Man Who Would Not Be King

Author: Stephen Krensky

Page Length: 111

Genre: Biography

PLOT SUMMARY: The biography begins with George Washington as a young boy attending school and living in the country in Virginia.  He practiced penmanship daily, learned to read and fell in love with math.  As a young man, George became a surveyor and used his math skills in measuring land for the plantation farmers.  He acquired land of his own and slaves to help take care of it. He married Martha Custis, not because he was romantically attracted to her, but because he knew she would be a suitable wife.

As a young man, George had an early interest in serving in the British militia.  As the colonies began to feel threatened by England and the king, George joined forces with the Continental Army and quickly became a general.  After the revolution, George was asked to be King, but he refused because he stood behind the belief of the Constitution that America was to be a land of freedom.

REVIEW: This is an easy to read book that depicts George Washington not only as a military and political figure, but a man who worked hard, provided for his family and friends and believed in justice.

It would be a good book for the reluctant young boy to read who is interested in American history.  It could be used in conjunction with a study on President’s Day.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Historical Context, Sequence of Events, Character

RELATED BOOKS: Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution, The American Revolution, George Washington’s First Victory

MOVIE & TV CONNECTIONS: George Washington (2001), The Life of George Washington (1984, mini-series)

RELATED WEBSITES:…/463/lessonId__357

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Crazy Loco

Crazy Loco

Author: David Rice

Page Length: 135

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: This is a series of short stories in the setting of the Texas Rio Grande Valley.  All of the stories are about the daily lives of Mexican-American teens.  One story deals with two boys who live in a lower socio-economic small town who have their “uppity” cousins from California visit.  Another story is about an 85 year-old mid-wife and the relationship she shares with her niece.  One of the stories focuses on a young boy who is forced to move-in with his grandfather after his parent’s divorce.  There is a dog who loves firecrackers and a big learning experience for an altar boy.

REVIEW: The stories appear authentic because the author includes many Spanish words and phrases and depicts the characters with realistic personalities and viewpoints.   Also, the primary religion, Catholicism is used as a reference in the narratives that contain drama and some humor.

I would suggest this book for Hispanic males.  It could also be used in a study of Hispanic Heritage or in a cultural diversity unit.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Point of View, Character, and Setting

RELATED BOOKS: Becoming Naomi Leon, House on Mango Street, Finding Our Way, and Crossing the Wire

RELATED WEBSITES:…/463/lessonId__383

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging

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Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging

Author: Louise Rennison

Page Length: 6      

Reading Level: 247

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: This is a one-year diary account of the thoughts of Georgia Nicolson, a 14 year-old girl from England.  Georgia is the older sister of 3 year-old Libby, best friend of Jaz, and owner of Angus, a mixed breed cat who is very large and mean.

All of Georgia’s thoughts center on how to be a cool, sexy teen and survive the home life with her pet, sibling, and nerdy parents. Georgia relates the feelings she experiences when arriving at a costume party as a stuffed olive, paying Peter for kissing lessons, pretending she is a lesbian, and trying to attract Robbie (the SEX GOD). 

REVIEW: The book is written in a journal form with entries by months, days and hours.  Georgia’s accounts of life are hilarious, yet every teen-age girl can relate in someway to the feelings and experiences she has.  The book includes “Georgia’s Glossary” which defines many of the British/English terms used that Americans will not find familiar. 

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: References to lesbians and making out throughout the book but nothing inappropriate for today’s teen-age exposure

AREAS OF TEACHING: Figurative Language, Characters, Point of View, and Sequence of Events

RELATED BOOKS: On the Bright Side, I’m Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God, Knocked Out by My Nung-Nungas, Dancing In My Nuddy Pants, Away Laughing on a Fast Camel, Then He Ate My Boy Entrancers, Startled by His Furry Shorts, Love is a Many Trousered Thing, and Stop in the Name of Pants

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (2008)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

An Order of Amelie, Hold the Fries

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An Order of Amelie, Hold the Fries

Author: Nina Schindler

Page Length: 136

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction         

PLOT SUMMARY: Tim is a high school senior who sees the girl of his dreams walking down the street. When he recovers a piece of paper she has dropped, he feels as if heaven has come down and filled his soul.  The paper has the girls’ name and address on it.  Or . . .so he thinks.  Actually, the name on the paper is that of another girl, Amelie.  Amelie is 19 years old and practically engaged.  Tim is not aware of the mix up and writes a letter to the name and sends it to the address on the paper.  Tim is persistent and convinces Amelie to meet him.  When she does, Amelie finds she is attracted to him.  However, she does not know how to go about choosing between her long time boyfriend or falling for Tim.

REVIEW: This is a clever book written entirely as e-mails, memos, quick notes, post cards and letters.  The illustrations are black and white and are in the forms of photos and graphic art with the text on the different memos inset as collages.  This is a quick read and may be appealing to the reluctant reader because the passages are short.    

AREAS OF TEACHING: Reading Varied Sources: Diaries, Journals, Letters, Memoranda

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

November 14, 2009

Pain and Wastings

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Pain and Wastings

Author: Carrie Mac

Page Length: 122

Reading Level: 3.6

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Ethan grew up on the bad side of town near Main and Hastings known to others as Pain and Wastings. Ethan’s mother was involved in prostitution and drugs – a life that eventually led to her murder. Ethan has been forced to grow up in foster homes. His anger and indifference to the world has landed him in legal trouble for which he is assigned to spend time with an emergency response crew. The events that happen on the nights out working the neighborhood remind Ethan of the pain he’s tried to avoid but just can’t escape anymore.

REVIEW: For an Orca book, this one was pretty good. I really liked the pacing and the way the author slowly reveals the tragedy that Ethan has so carefully disguised and tried to ignore responding to all these years. This book does deal with sex in the form of prostitution by both his mother and Kelly. In the story, drug use issues are prevalent and murder takes place. This is an intense read that the kids would probably stay hooked on—beware of all the “inappropriate” content.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: sequence of events, internal conflict, external conflict, character traits, dialogue, cause and effect, point of view, flashback technique

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: p. 104 “the man had finished, zipped up his pants…” and “her head bloody,” p. 96 “long enough to squeeze me through my jeans and give me a French kiss”

RELATED BOOKS: The Beckoners, Crush, Charmed, Retribution, Storm

RELATED MOVIES: “Forrest Gump”


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

Neighborhood Odes

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Neighborhood Odes

Author: Gary Soto

Page Length: 68

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Poetry

PLOT SUMMARY: Soto’s Odes take us back to childhood where we get to experience weddings, snow cones, Sundays in the park, piñatas at birthday parties and so much more. Throughout each poem Spanish vocabulary words are interwoven adding to the authenticity of the Mexican-American heritage expressed.

REVIEW: Soto’s poems are interesting and entertaining. As students read about these Mexican-American childhood experiences, they will relate to their own experiences of having a dog, eating their favorite foods, going to and having birthday parties, taking family photos, etc.

AREAS FOR TEACHING:  poetic elements, imagery, adjectives

Teachers could consider reading a poem and then having students write about a memory the poem sparked.

RELATED BOOKS: Taking Sides, My Little Car, Nickel and Dime, Too Many Tamales

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004)


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

Island of the Blue Dolphins

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Island of the Blue Dolphins

Author: Scott O’Dell

Page Length: 184

Reading Level: 5.5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: The only life Karana has ever known is as a young Indian woman on her tribe’s island. Their peaceful world is disturbed when hunters arrive one day to rob the land of its treasures and start a great battle. Out of sadness and despair, Karana’s people decide to leave their village life behind. But as the boat sets sail, Karana realizes that her little brother has been left behind. Will she save him? If she gives up her chance for rescue, will there be another or is Karana prepared to survive on the island alone?

REVIEW: Karana’s story is heart wrenching and interesting; however, I think that struggling readers will become lost in many of the details and descriptions of the hunt and island life. Yet, O’Dell uses vivid imagery; students could respond by recreating scenes from the story. Helping students to visualize the island and the conditions (possibly through pictures and drawings) would help improve comprehension and engagement in the last half of the story. I’ve seen this book used as a sixth grade classroom read and most of the students were not engaged in the story. However, the novel brings to light some interesting discussion points about sacrifice and survival. It definitely provides a springboard for discussing bravery and courage. As a book, with a character who endures many hardships and prevails, it is a worthwhile read. It was a winner of the Newberry Medal.

The story is based on the true accounts of the Lost Woman of San Nicolas.

AREAS FOR TEACHING:  character traits, cause and effect, author’s purpose, sequence of events

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: fighting among the natives and the Aleuts (p. 22-24)

RELATED BOOKS: Gary Paulsen’s Dogsong, Hatchet, S. M. Sterling’s Dies the Fire, Lord of the Flies, Robinson Crusoe, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Island of the Blue Dolphins (1964)


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

The Great Serum Race

The Great Serum Race

Author: Debbie Miller

Page Length: 32

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Non-fiction, trade book

PLOT SUMMARY: In 1925, the town of Nome, Alaska experiences an outbreak of diphtheria that threatens the lives of all it’s citizens. The only hope for recovery is a batch of antitoxin serum in which this isolated community is without. The town’s doctor sends a distress message for an order of the serum. However, delivery of the medicine proves a problem during the winter. A helicopter transport is impossible. They decide to carry the serum by train, however it is only able to be delivered as close as 700 miles away from Nome. To transport the serum the remaining 700 miles to Nome, an elaborate relay team of 20 mushers and 160 dogs is formed. Battling temperatures of over 60 degrees below zero, 2-3 hours of daily sunshine, 4 dog deaths, and miles of frozen seas, the relay teams successfully deliver the serum to the town of Nome in less than 6 days.

REVIEW: This short picture book captures the true events of several teams of sled dogs and mushers in their pursuit to save a town from a deadly disease. While over 160 dogs participated in this venture, Balto received the most recognition by the media due to his participation in the last leg of the relay as well as his “preferred name”. Many of the dogs were recognized on tours, zoo appearances, and movie spotlights.

The famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race commemorates the 1925 serum run. This famous race follows much of the same route as the 1925 run. Leonhard Seppala, owner of both Balto and Togo (both dogs participated in the serum run) is recognized as an honorary musher for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

This book would be an excellent supplement to a study of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Students interested in dogs may find this book appealing.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: social studies trade book, sequence of events, case and effect

RELATED BOOKS: Storm Run by Libby Riddles, Balto: Sled Dog of Alaska by LaVere Anderson, Racing Sled Dogs: An Original North American Sport by Michael Cooper, The Call of the Wild by Jack London, White Fang by Jack London (list of books)

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: “Iditarod: A Far Distant Place” (2000)


REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

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