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January 18, 2010

The House of Scorpions

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The House of the Scorpion

Author: Nancy Farmer

Page Length: 380

Reading Level: 6.3

Genre:  Science Fiction, Fantasy

PLOT SUMMARY: Matt, who is almost 6 years old, lives in a small cottage with only his foster mother, Celia. He has only the television for company and occasional visits from a doctor. He desires to be able to play with the children he sees outside his windows but he is not allowed to go outside or talk with anyone. One day, some children come close enough to talk to him. He breaks a window to escape the locked house, but injures himself by jumping out onto the broken glass. The children rush Matt to the Big House, where he is kept as a prisoner in a small room and where he is visited and sometimes tormented by the other children. As it turns out, Matt’s full name is Matteo Alacran. Alacran means “scorpion,” from which the title of the book, The House of the Scorpion, is named.

Matt gradually finds out that he is a clone, a genetic copy of El Patron. El Patron is the 142 year old ruler of the country of Opium, a small strip of land between the United States and what was formerly Mexico but is now called Aztlan. When people try to cross the border from Aztlan to the United States, they are caught by the Farm Patrol and put to work on the opium farms. Then chips are implanted into their brains so they will be obedient workers, called eejits. Clones are normally rendered mentally disabled at birth and are used for spare parts by the rich and powerful. But El Patron ignores the law and enjoys watching Matt grow up and seeing himself as a young man in him. Once he finds out about Matt’s presence in his house, he provides the boy with an education, music lessons, and a kind but gruff bodyguard named Tam Lin. Celia and Tam Lin are the two loving people in his life who teach him about caring and self-preservation. Others in the household mostly scorn him, considering clones to be like animals, but Maria, a United States senator’s daughter, offers him friendship though she refuses to acknowledge how cruel the two-faced Tommy is to Matt.

During the wedding of Maria’s older sister, Emilia, when Matt is 14, El Patron suddenly collapses, and Matt finally realizes that the old man needs his heart to stay alive. Matt must make a daring escape to Aztlan, but is captured there and put into a slave labor camp for orphans, where he makes some new friends and enemies.

REVIEWThe House of the Scorpion is a thought-provoking novel, presenting issues like human cloning, the value of human life, the importance of responsibility and friendship. Matt is a confused but sympathetic protagonist who has some of the less likable characteristics of El Patron but who also reflects the values he has learned from Celia and Tam Lin. The unusual setting is brought vividly to life with a wealth of detail based on Farmer’s childhood growing up in Yuma, Arizona, near the Mexican border. At 380 pages, the book may be a challenge for younger readers, but it is also rewarding. The book would appeal to science fiction, fantasy, and adventure fans who may enjoy a good coming-of-age story.  

AREAS FOR TEACHING:  figurative language, connotation and denotation, main idea and supporting details, theme, setting, characters, point of view, conflict, plot, compare/contrast, cause/effect conclusions, generalizations, predictions, voice, mood, and tone.

RELATED BOOKS:  The Giver by Lois Lowry, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Feed by M.T. Anderson, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau. Books by the same author: The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, The Sea of Trolls, The Land of the Silver Apples.

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Jurassic Park (1993), The Boys From Brazil (1978), Multiplicity (1996)




REVIEWED BY:  Tammy Leitzel

The Contender

The Contender

Author: Robert Lipstyte

Page Length: 227

Reading Level: 6.1

Genre: Fiction, Drama

PLOT SUMMARY: The main character, Alfred Brooks, is a young African American man whose daily life exemplifies the struggles of urban life in the 1960s.  He lives with his caring, loving Aunt Pearl in Harlem since the death of his mother when he was 13 and abandonment of his father when he was 10. On the stoops of his neighborhood are alcoholics, drug addicts, and homeless people. The plot intensifies when Alfred’s long-time best friend, James, and others try to get Alfred to rob the store at which he works. Alfred refuses but forgets to tell the others of the silent alarm. One person gets arrested and the other two get away. James turns to drugs and tempts Alfred. Through these struggles, he manages to find the will to survive and be a better person by learning to box. Boxing and his coaches provides him with the self confidence and discipline he so desperately needs to reject the temptations of drugs, robbery, and dropping out of school for good. Alfred then begins to learn that he can be a positive influence upon the community in which he lives. Alfred learns that being a contender does not necessarily apply only to boxing.

REVIEW: The Contender is an excellent book in which most reader’s can identify with the themes; that is, resisting peer pressure, trying to become a better person, and overcoming difficult situations. Robert Lipstyte, the author of The Contender, leaves the reader with a sense of hope at overcoming obstacles and moving forward rather than following the status quo. After reading the book, one believes he or she can arise from his/her surroundings of desperation if only one becomes focused upon something that is positive and maintains discipline to achieve a goal and maintain hope in a better tomorrow.   

AREAS FOR TEACHING: main idea and supporting details, theme, setting, characters, point of view, conflict, plot, compare/contrast, cause/effect, sequence of events, inference, conclusions, generalizations, predictions, voice, mood, tone, peer pressure,  5 steps of the writing process

RELATED BOOKS: Monster by Walter Dean Myers, Rocky Marciano: The Rock of His Times by Russell Sullivan, Muhammad Ali, the People’s Champ  by Elliott J. Gorn,  King of the World by David Remnick, Grammar for Middle School: A… by Don Killgallon, Iron Mike: A Mike Tyson Reader by Daniel O’Connor. Books by the same author: The Brave, The Chief, Warrior Angel, One Fat Summer (Ursula Nordstrom, Raiders Night, The Yellow Flag

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Hope for the Broken Contender (2008), Kid Monk Baroni (1952), Cinderella Man (2005), Rocky Balboa (2006), Rocky (1976)

RELATED WEBSITES:,pageNum-4.html

REVIEWED BY: Tammy Leitzel

The Birchbark House

The Birchbark House

Author: Louise Erdrich

Page Length: 244

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: After relating the rescue of a baby smallpox survivor from Spirit Island, the story jumps seven years and unfolds into a little Native American girl’s, Omakayas’,  point of view.  She introduces all the characters and paints the deep love and respect of their family as they complete the seasonal chores of life such as growing food, hunting for/storing meats, and making clothes and other household articles. 

Mother, Yellow Kettle, her older sister, Angeline, and Grandma, Nokomis, are strong and capable female members of the family.  Mother is shrewd, joyful and beautiful.  Omakayas is jealous of Angeline’s beauty and bead skills, and yet wants to grow up to be just like her.  Nokomis constantly attends to chores, medicines and rituals.  Omakayas learns to build the birchbark house, to listen to the plants, animals and dreams and to tell stories by helping Grandma daily.  Her little brother Pinch is an incessant bother, always naughty and greedy.  Omakayas is embarrassed by the mean thoughts she has about Pinch.  It is ironic that Pinch’s behavior paves the way for the family to laugh again after the horrible illness that invades the family.  Omakayas heals Pinch and Pinch heals the family.  Her little baby brother Neewo is sweet and loving and always delights is Omakayas’ attention.  Her love for Neewo is as great as her grief on his death.  Deydey, her father, is a fur trader and often away, either hunting or trading.  Life was different when Deydey was home “…more exciting, …more difficult,…less predictable,…more secure”. (p.52)  Old Tallow, Omakayas’ surrogate mother, godmother, hero, mentor, savior and friend, looms large as her shadow throughout the story.  She provides strength, justice and life.

REVIEW:  A student who has read and loved such classics as the Little House  (Wilder) series and Indian Captive will enjoy this book. The Birchbark House displays the daily life of American Indians through the adventures of a little girl, Omakayas, and her siblings. Author Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa depicts the story of 1847 Ojibwa life. The book includes a detailed map of the area in which her story takes place and a glossary of terms. This book is a wonderful read to learn about the Native American culture. The reader is left thinking a lot about life, death, and thankfulness.  

AREAS FOR TEACHING: characterization, compare/contrast, figurative language, theme, setting, conflict, plot, cause/effect, sequence of events, voice, mood, tone, American Literature, author’s purpose, comic relief, dialect, and protagonist

RELATED BOOKS: Grasshopper Summer by Ann Turner, The Life and Death of Crazy Horse by Russell Freedman, Morning Girl by Michael Dorris, Sweetgrass by Jan Hudson, The Eagle’s Shadow by Nora Martin, The Cry of the Crow by Jean Craighead George. Books by the same author: The Porcupine Year and The Game of Silence, The Antelope Wife, Love Medicine, Tracks

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Dancing with Wolves (1993), Broken Arrow (1950, Col.), Geronimo (1993 Col)



REVIEWED BY:  Tammy Leitzel


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Author: Stephenie Meyer

Page Length: 498

Reading Level:  6

Genre:  Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: This book was about a young girl, whose name was Bella, and her new adventures with Edward, who is also a vampire.   It takes place in Forks, Washington at Forks High School.   Bella has come to spend time with her father, Charlie, because her mother has just married.   The reader sees the story through Bella’s eyes, as she is also the narrator. The main characters are Edward, Bella, the vampire family, Bella’s family, and the various friends of Bella. 

After her arrival to her father’s home the reader is taken to the 1st day of Bella’s new school.   She meets new friends at school and Edward, who happens to be in her Biology class, rescues her from a runaway van in the parking lot.  Edward suddenly appears in front of Bella to stop the van in time.  Bella sees Edward as a super human being because he manhandled the vehicle and appeared out of nowhere.  Therefore, Bella is not very happy about Edward, but is drawn to him because of his good looks, fascinating eyes and the way he looks at her.

Later, more exciting things happen to the two of them.  Bella meets the rest of Edward’s family who are all vegetarian (humanitarian) vampires.   The theme in the story is one of romance and love.   However I saw an underlying theme of vampire survival.   There was an enemy of the good vampires (Edward’s family) who actually will kill human beings for their blood.  Fun things happen at LaPush Beach were Bella meets Jacob, from a neighboring Indian tribe.  Then a party dance is the big deal at school and two of Bella’s friends are invited and ask Bella to join them as they go shopping for dresses at Port Angeles.  She goes with them, but gets side tracked and meets Edward again.   He rescues her again from some guys who are planning something dirty for Bella.  Bella soon figures out that Edward is a vampire, and he ultimately confesses that he is indeed a vampire.

More exciting things happen as Bella meets the family and they participate in a baseball game during a thunderstorm.   Three of the clan’s rival vampires are ready to get Bella, because they smell her blood.  James, the most evil of the rivals, plans an attack to get Bella alone.   He succeeds. Even though Edward tries to throw him off course Bella is set up.   She is wounded quite a bit, but ultimately Edward sucks James’ vampire venom from Bella and saves her life.

REVIEW:  I liked reading the book because it was mind jingling. It was very adventurous.


6.9 draw on experience for word meanings

6.10 know the main idea and the details

6.11 make connections with comparison and ideas

6.12 analyze characters

RELATED BOOKS:   other books by Stephenie Meyer:  New Moon and Eclipse


REVIEWED BY:   Linda Schwegler

Rosa Parks

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Rosa Parks 

Author: Camilla Wilson     

Page Length: 74

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Biography

PLOT SUMMARY & REVIEW:  This is a biography of Rosa Parks.  The book goes back to when she was born poor in a small town in Alabama.  She feared the Whites from the beginning of her life, but she learned patience and became affluent with the NAACP because of her writing skills learned when she lived in Montgomery.  She married at a young age to Raymond Parks who shared her vision to help the African American people become independent.  Rosa was the person many Blacks could talk to about their problems with beatings or harsh punishments.  

Segregation Laws continued to keep Blacks from having any power.   However, Rosa Parks earned the right to vote and continued sitting in on NAACP meetings, taking notes, passing out flyers, and calling for important speakers.

In the year of 1954 she took her personal stand by not moving to the back of bus when told to do so.   She was arrested, and charged for the incident.  It was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.  Later on, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took Rosa Park’s start and began his personal Crusade to end segregation – to give all Blacks the same rights that were granted to Whites.  The Civil Rights Movement was a journey that Rosa Parks began by her bold move.  She was the light that kept the Civil Rights Movement burning when some wanted to put it out.   What an awesome and inspiring woman! This was a very good book.


4.9 draw upon experience to for word meanings

4.10 know main idea and details

4.11 connect and compare the various ideas

4.12 analyze characters

RELATED BOOKS:   Quiet Strength:  The Faith, the Hope, and Hero by Gregory J Reed,  If a Bus Could Talk by Ringgold Faith

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and Freedom March in Washington DC.

RELATED WEBSITES:,jsp?id=790_type=Book_typeId=2640

REVIEWED BY: Linda Schwegler

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