The Book Reviews – Website

December 19, 2010

Marcelo in the Real World

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork: Book Cover

Marcelo in the Real World


Author: Francisco Stork


Page Length: 312  


Reading Level: 5.3


Genre: Realistic Fiction


Career Connection:  Lawyer, Teacher, Occupational Therapist, Ministry

PLOT SUMMARY:  It isn’t often that a father forces his son to give up a job he has secured on his own, to take one in his own office.  However, that is what happens to Marcelo Sandoval, the summer before his senior year in high school.  Marcelo had planned to take care of the ponies at Paterson, his special school’s therapeutic-riding stables.  Marcelo exhibits qualities of Asperger’s Syndrome and is more comfortable at Paterson than he is in the real world.

His dad, Arturo, is a prominent lawyer.  He has always felt that Marcelo could overcome any obstacles he has, and wants to prove it to Marcelo by having him work in the mail room at his law firm.  He also wants Marcelo to attend the local regular high school, Oak Ridge High, rather than Paterson in the fall. Marcelo agrees to work for his father, if at the end of the summer he can make the choice of the school he will attend in the fall. 

Marcelo finds that working with Jasmine in the mailroom is not as bad as he thought it would be.  Jasmine is patient with him and he becomes comfortable in the working routine they have.  It is when Wendell, one of the partner’s sons, also working at the firm, confronts Marcelo and makes inappropriate remarks about Jasmine that Marcelo becomes upset.  Marcelo does not know how to react to Wendell, his feelings towards Jasmine, or a picture he finds when he is doing some work for Wendell.  The information he gains about the picture will affect a high profile case and the future of the firm. 

Will Marcelo tell what he knows about “the real world” or stay hidden in his Asperger-like comfort zone of Paterson?

REVIEW:  The book is narrarated by Marcelo who frequently talks of himself in third person.  He relates some of his peculiarities (e.g., he has obsessions with God and religion, hears internal music (IM), and sleeps in a tree house). He shares the difficulty he faces as he must learn menial tasks of the mailroom and deal with office politics.  He retains his innocence while considering the possibility of love, ethical dilemmas and other conflicts. 

Teen boys and girls, as well as adults, would enjoy this book that deals with the conflicts exposed for not only a boy with Asperger’s, but professional and social issues they may encounter themselves in the “real world”.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Theme, Characters, Point of View, Conflict, Compare/Contrast, and Cause/Effect

TOUCHY AREAS: Occasional harsh profanity and sexual inferences

RELATED BOOKS: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, Rules, Anything But Typical

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Mozart and the Whale (2005), Adam (2009), Rain Man (1988)

RELATED WEBSITES:…/scholastic-ala-2010-award-winners.html

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Maps – Getting from Here to There

Maps by Harvey Weiss: Book Cover

Maps – Getting from Here to There


Author: Harvey Weiss


Page Length: 64    


Genre: Non-Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: The book begins with the narrator describing his desk in his room. He then draws a map to inform the reader how to find him.  He expands the maps to finding his room if you began by looking at the globe.

He then defines a compass and explains how to make one.  Further explanation is given about scale maps, topographical maps, definitions of latitude and longitude, and using all of the terms when looking at a globe.

In addition, he explains marine charts and symbols, as well as, special purpose maps for subways, aircrafts, environment and roads.

REVIEW:  This is an excellent informational book with interesting explanations and good illustrations that should capture the interest of a reluctant reader. I would suggest it to be used at the beginning of any geography course either in middle, junior high or high school grades.  I believe boys would especially enjoy it.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Geographical vocabulary


RELATED BOOKS: The Map Catalog: Every Kind of Map and Chart on Earth and Even Some Above It

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: The Planet Earth (2007)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner


Luna by Julie Anne Peters: Book Cover



Author: Julie Anne Peters


Page Length: 248


Reading Level: 6


Genre: Fiction         

PLOT SUMMARY: Regan awakens to the sounds of Luna, her sister/brother, carousing through her room—applying make-up and trying on clothes.  Liam, Regan’s older brother by day, is a transsexual (a girl in a boy’s body).  However, this is a secret between the two siblings.  By day, Liam, a handsome, academic genius, is one of the most sought after boys at school.  By night, he addresses himself and has Regan also refer to him as “Luna”, as he steps into his female role.

As Regan struggles to cover for Liam’s/Luna’s strange behaviors and lack of desire to compete on the school’s baseball team, she also struggles through her classes at school that Liam often causes her to miss.  Besides having a girl for a brother, Regan’s parents are also dysfunctional.  Her dad lost his manager’s job at Sears and has had to take a menial job at Home Depot.  Her mother is a wedding planner, who pops pills throughout the day.

Regan tries to have a normal life at school, and becomes interested in Chris, who is her chemistry partner.  However, when Liam decides he is going to “come out” and have a sex change, Regan can concentrate only on Liam’s actions, and how his parent’s and his long-time friend, Aly, will react to Liam’s decision.

Throughout the book, Regan has flashbacks trying to figure out exactly when she knew Liam was a girl in a boy’s body.  She finally realizes that she knew a long time before he actually admitted it to her.  When Liam finally appears in make-up and girl’s clothing to his parent’s, Regan realizes that her mother has always known about Liam and did not do anything to help him. Regan also learns that Chris knows about Liam, and has no problem with accepting Liam as he is. 

After years of fighting Liam in his decision to “come out” and have a sex change, Regan learns that he will be happier and, better still, so will she as Liam lives his life as “Luna”. 

REVIEW: The subject of transsexuals in a high school book is a bit edgy and controversial.  However, this book was written from Regan’s point of view and is realistically presented in how a sibling may deal with this situation. 

This book could be used in a study of diversity and tolerance. Julie Anne Peter’s approaches controversial subjects in the way that young adults perceive them, which makes her books appropriate to read.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: transsexuality is the theme of the book, there is also some mild profanity

AREAS OF TEACHING: Character, Compare/Contrast, Point of View and Theme

RELATED BOOKS: Define “Normal”, Keeping You a Secret, Far from Xanadu, and Between Mom and Jo

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: The Bond (2007, documentary), Just Call Me Kade (2001, documentary)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

The Haunted House

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The Haunted House by Peggy Parish: Book Cover

The Haunted House

Author: Peggy Parish

Page Length: 151

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Bill, Liza, and Ted have just found out that they are moving. All three of them are sad because they know how much they will miss their friends next door. Not only are they moving, but they are moving into the old Blake place which everyone says is haunted! After they arrive at their new home, strange things begin to happen. Mysterious messages are left. The kids must face their fears and discover who or what is behind the mysterious events.

REVIEW: The book appears more interesting (cover art and cover teaser) than it actually is. Although there is great potential for an enthralling story, the book was obviously written for a younger audience and was written to be mysterious but not in any way frightening. I think this book would be great for 2nd or 3rd graders but would completely bore an older student. This book is a cute story for the little ones.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: sequence of events, character traits, cause and effect


RELATED BOOKS:  Amelia Bedelia books, Clues in the Woods, The Ghosts of Cougar Islands, Key to the Treasure


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

The First Woman Doctor

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First Woman Doctor by Baker: Book Cover

The First Woman Doctor


Author: Rachel Baker


Page Length: 210


Reading Level: 6


Genre: Biography

PLOT SUMMARY: It’s the early 1800s and Elizabeth Blackwell is a fortunate young woman. She’s been born to a progressive father who believes staunchly in equal rights. He believes in educating both his sons and his daughters broadly rather than confining the girls to studies of the home. He is the greatest champion for his daughters’ future success. Elizabeth will take the courage and determination she inherited and persevere despite hardships. She will often be told no – but she will not take no for an answer. Elizabeth wants to be a doctor, a surgeon, and even start her own medical school. Nothing can succeed in the face of such determination.

REVIEW: This is an excellent book. I love what it teaches everyone about courage and perseverance – where there’s a will there’s a way. Historically this book is also a great look at women’s rights, slavery, and even the treatment of the social classes. This book is an engaging and intriguing look into what early medicine was like (including the use of leeches).

AREAS FOR TEACHING:  sequence of events, cause and effect, character traits, making predictions, analogies, historical context, context clues

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: issues of prejudice

RELATED BOOKS: Mary on Horseback, After the Dancing Days, The Story of George Washington Carver

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: The Blackwell Story (1957)


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

The Egypt Game

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The Egypt Game

The Egypt Game


Author: Zilpha Keatley Snyder


Page Length: 215


Reading Level: 6.6


Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: April Hall has just moved in with her grandmother. At first, Melanie isn’t sure the two of them will have anything in common, but April is the only other girl her age in the building. It isn’t long before they both discover that they love anything that has to do with Ancient Egypt. They simply can’t learn enough about the ancient gods, goddesses, and ceremonies. Soon, April and Melanie discover an empty storage shed behind the antique shop and the Egypt game begins. The girls begin to plan elaborate rituals and create fancy costumes. The game is in full swing when tragedy strikes the neighborhood. Allowed to play only indoors, the girls begin to wonder if their created ancient Egypt is gone forever. Yet, it isn’t long until the game is going strong and they are joined by more ancient Egyptians. Everything is great until one dark night when two of them find themselves all alone, with danger lurking in the darkness, and no other Egyptians around … it may just be the end of the Egypt game forever.

REVIEW: This book is a Newberry Honor Book. The characters are well developed and the story is pretty engaging. For a student who loves Ancient Egyptian history and stories, this book would be highly recommended. Woven within the story are also some significant issues. April’s been sent to her grandmother as her mother marries and worries about her acting career (putting her own needs over her daughters). The professor who owns the antique shop is being persecuted as strange and suspect based on his anti-social behaviors. A disturbed man is on the loose and is killing children. There are plenty of plot twists and turns to entertain the reader – though most occur in the latter half of the story.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: making predictions, cause and effect, inferences, character analysis and motivations, connecting text to historical events, connecting text to other text, sequence of events, author’s purpose

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: April’s feelings of loss because her mother sent her away, the theme of loss and depression, murder

RELATED BOOKS: The Headless Cupid, The Witches of Worm, The Trespassers, Cat Running, The Gypsy Game, Soapy and the Pharaoh’s Curse, The Pyramid Builder

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Night at the Museum – Smithsonian, “The Ramses Collection”


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

The Legend of the Bluebonnet

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The Legend of the Bluebonnet by Tomie dePaola: Book Cover

The Legend of the Bluebonnet

Author: Tomie DePaola

Page Length: 30

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Folktale

PLOT SUMMARY: When the tribe’s shaman returns from speaking with the Great Spirit about the drought, the shaman tells his people that the Great Spirit is asking for an offering of the most precious possession of the group. She-Who-Is-Alone, a Comanche orphan girl, decides to offer up her most precious item – a doll. Many memories of her late mother, father, and grandparents are attached to this doll and this young girl offers up the highest sacrifice she can make to help her people.

After burning her doll and spreading it’s ashes, the dry soil begins to sprout blue flowers – a sign that the drought has ended. She-Who-Is-Alone is now referred to as One-Who-Dearly-Loved-Her-People.

REVIEW: This folktale attempts to explain the origins of the Texas bluebonnet utilizing Comanche folktales. It is a short book that would make a good beginner’s example when teaching this genre.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: genre, folktale

RELATED BOOKS: The Legend of the Pointsettia by Tomie DePaola, Don’t Eat the Bluebonnets by Ellen Leventhal



REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

Looking for Alibrandi

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Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta: Book Cover

Looking for Alibrandi

Author: Melina Marchetta

Page Length: 313

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Josephine Alibrandi is 17 years old and attends St. Martha’s Catholic School for Girls. She is a senior and plans to study law after graduation.  Josephine has four best friends who all have different backgrounds and personalities but somehow seem to “click”.

Josephine lives with her Italian grandmother and mother.  She has never had any type of relationship with her father.  Josephine is aware that she is illegitimate, but knows that her mother has done the best job she can as far as raising her as a single parent.  Her mother has a lot of wisdom and lives a rather no-nonsense life.  Her grandmother is very attune to Old Italian customs and is protective of Josephine. Eventually Josephine meets her dad and begins a relationship with him – first as friends, then as a father/daughter relationship. 

Josephine is aware that two boys from adjoining community schools have interest in her.  She feels that John Barton has all the characteristics a good husband should have, but she is more attracted to Jacob Coote, who is not so well-polished.  A relationship develops with Jacob; however, she continues to share interests and a friendship with John.

As the plot develops, Josephine begins to talk with her grandmother about her immigration to Australia.  Josephine learns secrets about her family that explain the types of relationships they have.  She discovers that John is not the perfect guy. She also learns that Jacob is more sensitive than he appears, that nuns are not without sin, and that her friends’ morals and values are questionable.  In this entire discovery, Josephine begins to become a young woman with her own dreams.

REVIEW: This book has several subplots that influence Josephine’s life and future.  The relationships with her family, girlfriends, boyfriends, and the nuns at her school are all well-developed and relevant to her coming of age.  Because of the harsh language, I would recommend it to more mature female teens.  It is an excellent book with a lot of drama which most girls enjoy.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Character, Point of View, Conflict, Cause/Effect, and Comparison/Contrast

TOUCHYAREAS: harsh profanity (p. 55,126, 159, 160, 172, 183, 193, 226, 247, 253, 264, and 274)

RELATED BOOKS: Saving Francesca, Becoming Naomi Leon, Jellicoe Road

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Looking for Alibrandi (Australian film, 2000)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska by John Green: Book Cover

Looking for Alaska

Author: John Green

Page Length: 221


Reading Level: 6


Genre: Realistic Fiction


Career Connection: Teacher      

PLOT SUMMARY: When only two people attend his going away party, Miles Halter knows he has made a good decision to leave his Florida home and attend Culver Creek Preparatory School in Alabama.  And, as he leaves he uses Francois Rabelais’s last words—“I go to seek a Great Perhaps”.

Upon his arrival at Culver Creek, Miles meets his roommate, Chip “The Colonel” Martin.  Through Chip, he is introduced to Alaska Young – wild and self destructive – but the girl who captures his heart. After Miles is duct-taped and thrown into a lake, an all out prank war ensues between the “Weekday Warriors” and Miles and his new friends,

As the school year progresses, Miles finds himself involved in illegal activities such as smoking and drinking on campus while his affections for Alaska grow.  Although Alaska is quite coy with Miles, she dates a college student and introduces him to Lara, a Romanian girl, who eventually becomes his girlfriend.  Takumi, a Japanese student, is the fifth member of this group of pranksters.

It is during one night after a “pre-prank” against the Warriors, the group plays a drinking game and Alaska reveals to her friends that when she was 8 years old, she watched her mother die from a brain aneurysm.  The guilt she carries seemed to be an explanation of why she lives “on the edge”.

On another night of drinking, Alaska and Colonel become extremely drunk.  Alaska and Miles share an intimate moment before falling asleep.  Later, Alaska receives a phone call and comes back into the room, hysterical, telling the boys they must help her get away.  The events that follow devastate the group in realms beyond their control and imagination.

REVIEW: The chapters of the book are titled in “Before and After” sequences which tell the reader that something monumental occurs halfway through the book. This format is a “hook” to the reader, as well as, the curling smoke on the cover of the book. 

I rate this book as one of the best young adult novels I have read because of the captivating voice of Miles as he leaves his safe world of isolation and plunges into a life of love and loss through new found friends.  He shares humor in his revelations and meaning through his thoughts that cause the reader to connect with each of the well-developed characters. 

Senior high students of both genders would relate well to the events and characters of the book.  At the end of the book, a discussion guide and interview with the author are included.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: cigarette, marijuana, and alcohol use, sexually explicit situations

AREAS OF TEACHING: Conflict, Setting, Characters, Point of View, and Voice, Mood, and Tone

RELATED BOOKS: Speak, Morning is a Long Time Coming, Shattered Glass


MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Famous Last Words (from Looking for Alaska, to be released 2013), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt: Book Cover

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy


Author: Gary D. Schmidt


Page Length: 219


Reading Level: 5.5


Genre: Realistic Fiction     

PLOT SUMMARY: The story is set in 1912 in Phippsburg, Maine. Turner Buckminster and his parents have recently moved to the small coastal town from Boston, Massachusetts.  Turner’s father is the new town minister.  Turner is not accepted well by the townspeople, primarily for the way he plays baseball.  While out throwing rocks, Turner meets Lizzie Bright, an African American girl who lives on an island just across the bay.

While Turner befriends Lizzie, the townspeople decide that the residents of Malaga Island (Lizzie’s home) should be taken off the island so that the island can be transformed into a resort.  Meanwhile, the deacons of the church and Mrs. Cobb keep the minister informed of his son’s wrongdoings. Subsequently, Turner is forbidden to go to Malaga Island and sentenced to read and play the organ for Mrs. Cobb in the afternoons. This punishment turns into a chance for Mrs. Cobb and Turner to bond. Lizzie also joins the two as she comes to listen to Turner.

When Mrs. Cobb dies, she leaves her home to Turner. When Turner decides to move Lizzie and other residents of the island into the vacated home, Turner’s father supports his son (however much of the congregation turn on the minister).  An accident ensues and the minister is ousted from the church. As a result, Turner and his mother are forced to move into Mrs. Cobb’s vacant home. 

After the minister’s death, the town falls into terrible debt, and all too late the people of Phippsburg find that their racial prejudice and greediness left them with virtually nothing.

REVIEW: This book is based on actual events that occurred in Maine in the early 20th century.  The writing is very descriptive and many similes are used.  It would be an excellent novel to read in connection with the social issues of the time

The relationship that Turner experiences with the whales on pages 79-80 and 214-216 are chilling. 

AREAS OF TEACHING: Similes, Descriptive Writing, Character, Theme, Setting, and Historical Context

RELATED BOOKS: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Leon’s Story, Mississippi Morning

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: A Time to Kill (1996), Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1978), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

The Dark Side of Nowhere

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The Dark Side of Nowhere by Neal Shusterman: Audio Book Cover

The Dark Side of Nowhere


Author: Neal Shusterman


Page Length: 185


Reading Level: 7


Genre: Fiction / Fantasy

PLOT SUMMARY: Jason’s anxious to shake the small town dust off his feet. Having everyone know everything about him just gets to be too much sometimes. Lately, everyone’s begun to act strangely — a weird encounter with the school janitor and now there’s a secret to protect. What’s going on in Jason’s town? Who’s involved in the cover up and what exactly are they hiding? Will Jason be able to save Paula in time?

REVIEW: This was an interesting book for teaching compositional risk (a great way to achieve a 4 on the TAKS writing). The story seems to be along the usual plot lines until Jason discovers the unthinkable — that everything isn’t what he thought it was; and, that even he isn’t who he thought he was. Once their true selves are revealed no one will ever be the same again. Paula, Jason’s crush, is in grave danger. Jason believes that change is possible, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish it. The story is entertaining from a science fiction perspective. Great student responses of their own “what if” stories could occur after reading this novel. This book is good for whole or small group discussion.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: plot, sequence, journal response, character traits, making predictions, generalizations and conclusions


RELATED BOOKS: Everlost, Unwind, The Shadow Club, The Eyes of Kid Midas, Dread Locks, Red Rider’s Hood, Full Tilt, Scorpion Shards, Thief of Souls, Shattered Sky

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: War of the Worlds (2005), Men in Black (1997), Race to the Witch Mountain (2009), Return to Witch Mountain (1978)


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

The Brimstone Journals

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The Brimstone Journals by Ron Koertge: Book Cover

The Brimstone Journals

Author: Ron Koertge

Page Length: 113

Reading Level: 6.6

Genre: Poetry

PLOT SUMMARY: Meredith, Jennifer, Joseph, Lester, Tran, Sheila, Allison, Kelli, Damon, Rob, Carter, Neesha, David, Boyd, and Kitty are all students at Branston High School. That’s where from many of them their similarities end. One of them is branded as the school slut, another has unwanted advances being made by her stepfather, and yet another is worried about her weight. One of the boys is super athlete who controls his girlfriend, another is new kid in school whose father only wants him to follow the family line and be a doctor, and yet another – perhaps the most dangerous of all – is stockpiling weapons. His plan is to get rid of the people on his “list” and he’s not going to let anything get in his way.

REVIEW: Finally there is a story that can still be a story, maintain a smooth pace, and keep the reader entertained and engaged while being written as a series of journal type entries in the form of poems. Koertge did an excellent job of coming up with a character that almost every high school student can identify with. Boyd’s list of people he plans to execute is an interesting study in pathological behavior – sometimes people end up on the list just for being smart, etc.

This book takes an excellent stand on school violence because the others kids, even those who were going to be involved, take a stance, seek help, and do everything that they can to prevent the tragedy from occurring. I liked this book; it’s a short read that is full of discussion potential. I would recommend this as a classroom / small group assigned reading activity.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: cause and effect, character’s motivation, elements of plot, poetic forms, tree map of the characters and their personality traits

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Rob has sex with Jennifer because he’s earning points in his sex game – her reaction “it was kind of gross him lying on me like that, plus it hurt” (77)

Talk of pipe bombs, guns, and other explosive materials

References to drinking and a girl with a crush on another girl


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

The Boxer

Filed under: T — thebookreviews @ 11:13 pm
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The Boxer by Kathleen Karr: Book Cover

The Boxer

Author: Kathleen Karr

Page Length: 169

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: It’s the late 1800s and times are hard for John and his family. His father has run off, his mother barely makes enough money to get by, and he’s left trying to support his brothers and sisters. Tired of struggling, John decides to try to win the prize money in a fight – there’s only one catch – fighting is illegal. John winds up in the slammer for six months, but it’s in jail that he truly learns what it means to be a champion. Never giving up his love for boxing and determined to provide well for his family, John Woods overcomes the odds to become a famous boxer.

REVIEW: This was interesting read. John’s warm heart and love for his family above himself is an excellent lesson to promote to teenagers. The theme of perseverance and survival in the book is wonderfully and vividly presented. Readers get a feel for the economic circumstances of the time, the limitations imposed by one’s class, and the determination it takes to prevail during hard times. John never gives up on his dreams, his family, or his ethics. This book is a good read and would likely appeal to boys – with its boxing sequences and blow by blow descriptions.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: historical connections, connecting text to self, connecting text to text, cause and effect, sequence of events, compare and contrast

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: boxing, incarceration, betting

RELATED BOOKS: Fortune’s Fool, Born For Adventure, World’s Apart, Mama Went to Jail for the Vote, The 7th Knot, Gilbert and Sullivan Set Me Free


“Rocky” movies

Boxing paintings –


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick: Book Cover

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Author: Brian Selznick

Page Length: 525

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Hugo Cabret is a 12 year old orphan who is an accomplished thief and one who is skilled at fixing clocks and other machines. Hugo lives and “works” in a train station during the 1930’s in Paris, France. Before this, a museum fire killed Hugo’s father and Hugo’s subsequent guardian deserts him. As a result, Hugo becomes a recluse and manages to lead a quiet life. However, the discovery of an automated machine and a notebook fascinate Hugo as they may provide clues about his father.

This fascination leads Hugo into a world of trouble as he must open up about his secret life and risk being taken into custody by officials. Little does Hugo know that much of what he has been hiding will provide insight into not only his life but the past life of a local toy maker.

REVIEW: This was a very creative story to read. Half of the book’s tale is told using black and white illustrations. The pictures do not just accompany the text, they actually add detail to the written story.

Upon encountering each picture, readers are encouraged to spend time with each illustration. The author goes beyond just a tale of an orphan trying to find out the secrets behind an old machine, by delving into the topic of the early silent picture/movie industry.

The author, after much research, has taken the known facts about the real-life filmmaker of Georges Melies (as represented in the character of the toy maker) and imagined his personality.

The art of early cinema and the adventure of secret discoveries come together in this great book that will appeal to many readers. It is a nice blend of graphic novel, art work, and film slides.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: imagery, setting, historical influence

RELATED BOOKS: Before Hollywood: From Shadow Play to the Silver Screen by Paul Clee

ART CONNECTIONS: There are 284 pages of original drawings by the author, Brian Selznick, in The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

The book also contains drawings/sketches by Georges Melies (pages 284-297) as well as other works by Brian Selznick that were inspired by the works of Georges Melies.

For a complete listing of all film still and illustration credits, refer to page 531 of The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: For a complete listing of films mentioned in the book as well as films that were influential in the creation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, refer to page 532 of the book.

Sources report that a film studio is looking into adapting the book into a movie for a 2011 release.

RELATED WEBSITES: (official website for the book) (type “Melies” into the search engine for links to Georges Meiles’ life story) (lessons and activities that relate to the book)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

Learning to Fly

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Learning to Fly by Paul Yee: Book Cover

Learning to Fly

Author: Paul Yee

Page Length: 107


Reading Level: 3.34


Genre: Fiction


Career Connections: none         

PLOT SUMMARY: Jason is the only Chinese student at the high school in the small town where his mother has opened a deli.  Students make fun of him at school and when he is working at the deli.  He and his mother moved to the United States from China two years after his father had immigrated.  Little did his mother know that his father was having an affair and would leave them as soon as they arrived in the United States.  Jason hates the U. S. but cannot return to China because his mother would have no one to help her.

After witnessing a police chase in the mall, Jason becomes friends with Chief, a Native American student who attends his high school.  Because Chief and his friends smoke marijuana, Jason decides to join them. Jason takes money from his mother to buy pot for him and his new friends. When their supplier gets busted, Jason gets a call to buy a large quantity of pot for the group.  That night, he realizes he was “set up” and is busted by the police. 

Jason feels all alone, but when Chief’s sister dies from an overdose, he realizes that he is not alone in feeling like an outsider and reaches out as a friend to the only other non-white boy in town, Chief.

REVIEW: Many of our low level reading students are those who are immigrants from other countries. I believe this would be a good book for students to read who feel discriminated against.  The events of the book show what students will participate in (many activities legal or illegal) just to be accepted by someone or some group.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: profanity (pp. 83), marijuana and drug use

AREAS OF TEACHING: Characterization, Setting, Compare/Contrast

RELATED BOOKS: To Kill a Mockingbird, Romiette and Julio, and The Hoopster


MUSIC, MOVIE, AND ART CONNECTIONS: Remember the Titans (2002), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Gran Torino (2008)

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Just Another Hero

Just Another Hero by Sharon M. Draper: Book Cover

Just Another Hero


Author: Sharon M. Draper


Page Length: 280


Reading Level: 4.3


Genre: Fiction


Career Connection: Teacher, police officer, fast food/retail sales


PLOT SUMMARY: A senior year filled with drama is what the small group of friends of Douglass High encounter after they cope with Josh’s death from a hazing accident and the birth of his baby by November.


Arielle, who has struggled with peer relations, since the hazing event, finds a way to mend the fences with Kofi and the rest of the group, but she is living with her third stepfather who is extremely strict and controlling with she and her mother. She not only has lost her real dad but her sister has been placed in an institution. Her mother is bound within the wants and needs of her stepfather. No wonder she has a problem with day to day coping skills.


Kofi continues to feel pain from his broken arm that was injured in the hazing event and realizes he is addicted to pain killers. He qualifies for admission into Massachusetts Institute of Technology but sees his parents squandering away their money. What does he do to help his family and himself?


November has returned to school after the birth of her baby, but finds she has many responsibilities that make school issues take a backseat.


While each member of the group try to find coping skills for their various needs, someone is stealing money and personal property at school.


Meanwhile, Crazy Jack suffers a mental breakdown and brings an assault rifle to school. The discovery of the thief and Jack holding student’s hostage, takes a toll on the main characters as they try to determine what makes a real hero.


REVIEW: This is the final book of the trilogy of the student’s of Douglass High that Sharon Draper has developed. The book is written in third person narrative between Kofi and Arielle as the plot centers primarily on their life issues. Students who have read the previous books, The Battle of Jericho and November Blues will enjoy this final chapter of Arielle, Kofi, November, and Jericho as they answer the question, “What Makes a Real Hero?”


AREAS FOR TEACHING: Characters, Cause/Effect, Sequence of Events, Theme


TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: None that is not age appropriate


RELATED BOOKS: The Battle of Jericho, November Blues




REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

In the Woods

Filed under: I — thebookreviews @ 10:31 pm
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In the Woods by Robin Stevenson: Book Cover

In the Woods

Author: Robin Stevenson

Page Length: 124


Reading Level: 3.2 


Genre: Fiction


Career Connections: Social Worker      

PLOT SUMMARY: When Cameron gets a strange call from his twin sister, Katie, to ride to the park on his bike, he feels his all-star sister is hiding something. As Cameron circles the park in pouring rain, he hears a small cry in the woods.  He gets off his bike and follows the sound—discovering a baby wrapped on the forest floor.  Trying not to panic, he wraps the baby in the blankets and his jacket to protect it from the rain.  Luckily, a woman stops on the side of the road and rushes them to the hospital. After being questioned by the police, Cameron goes home and he questions Katie about the baby, but she completely denies knowing anything about it. 

At school the next day, Cameron confides his secret to Audrey, a girl with whom he is working on a school project. Audrey urges him to find out who the mother is, because Audrey herself is adopted and would like to know who her birthmother is. 

That afternoon, Cameron approaches Katie, again.  She does admit the baby is hers, but still wants to keep it from her mother.  Later, Cameron finds Katie in the bathroom having complications from the birth.  He convinces her to go to the hospital and tell her mother.

REVIEW: This book is an excellent high interest low level story for the reluctant reader.  Cameron’s character is nicely developed as he demonstrates gentleness and responsibility with the baby, his sister, Audrey, and his mother. These are traits young teens often try to hide.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Mild profanity

AREAS OF TEACHING: Character, Conflict, and Sequence of Events

RELATED BOOKS: Hanging on to Max, November Blues, and Saving Grace


MUSIC, MOVIE, AND ART CONNECTIONS: Where the Heart Is (2000), Juno (2007)

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

The Book Thief

Filed under: T — thebookreviews @ 10:29 pm
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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: Book Cover

The Book Thief

Author: Markus Zusak

Page Length: 550

Reading Level: 4.0

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Liesel Meminger hasn’t had an easy childhood. Her mother, faced with nothing to feed her children, had to send them away to foster parents in Germany. Liesel has lived in the shadows of talk about her father being a communist and she watches her sweet, dear baby brother die right in front of her. Her foster mother is harsh and calls her names; yet, there is love on Himmel Street. Her foster father nurtures her and teaches her to read. She becomes great friends with Rudy and embarks on many adventures with him. Liesel loves books and finds great comfort in them. But Liesel is a German, a member of Hitler Youth, and a great war is raging. Even her little corner of Himmel Street cannot escape the results of Hitler’s actions, and death is always watching and waiting.

REVIEW: One excellent teaching point from this book is “voice” in the form of the unusual narrator of the story and the perspective that death brings to it (a great example of that compositional risk aspect of writing needed to achieve a 4 on the TAKS test). Another great teaching point is the humanity of the people and even the “enemy” during war in the book. The power of love and friendship are notable points too.

I did not find the beginning of the book very engaging, but by the second half the story seemed more interesting and easier to follow. Even the small words in another language make fluency more difficult. I would not use this book as a classroom read and would not recommend it to struggling readers. I read in one of the reviews that in his home country this is considered an adult book.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: comparing text to self, compare and contrast, sequence of events, historical context, compositional risk – narrator

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: treatment of Jews, bullying, death in bombing, death of a sibling, separation from a parent

RELATED BOOKS: Four Perfect Pebbles, The Diary of Anne Frank, books by Zusak: Fighting Ruben Wolf, Getting the Girl, The Underdog, I Am the Messenger

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: The Diary of Anne Frank, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2009), Schindler’s List

RELATED WEBSITES: (awesome video intro to the book) (Zusak interview)

REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

The Afterlife

Filed under: T — thebookreviews @ 10:27 pm
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The Afterlife by Gary Soto: Book Cover

The Afterlife

Author: Gary Soto

Page Length: 161

Reading Level: 6.1

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Chuy’s just a normal seventeen year old. He likes to hang out with his friends and he’s hoping to snag a girlfriend soon. But fate has another plan. At a club his mother warned him about, Chuy is stabbed multiple times and left for dead on the bathroom floor. Why Chuy? Why now?

REVIEW: This book has a lot of potential. I think it would be an excellent read for many students. One of the great teachable moments of this book occurs when both Chuy and Crystal reflect on their choices and the course of their young lives. Students learn that Crystal killed herself out of fear and the Chuy’s killer lives by and in fear of those around him. The tragic deaths are explored in terms of their effects on the families, friends, and even strangers around them. Students can reflect how we all matter to more people than we may think and how far reaching one’s influence really is on others. Being a book about death – it’s message is all about what it means to live and about how life should be about taking chances and facing our fears.

The book begins with Chuy alive and in a club where he is suddenly stabbed to death in the bathroom. The rest of the book is about Chuy’s acceptance and exploration of his death as he travels about his neighborhood as a ghost. Chuy makes friends and discoveries, and he learns even more about his life as he witnesses the effect his death has on others.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: comparing text to self, compare and contrast, sequence of events, writing styles – reflective

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: stabbing (pages 2-3), death, suicide, fighting

RELATED BOOKS: Buried Onions, Baseball in April, A Summer Life, Accidental Love, The Lovely Bones (A Sebold)

RELATED WEBSITES:  (awesome book trailer)

REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

Stoner and Spaz

Filed under: S — thebookreviews @ 10:26 pm
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Stoner and Spaz by Ron Koertge: Book Cover

Stoner and Spaz

Author: Ron Koertge

Page Length: 169

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Ben Bancroft has become accustomed to having a hidden life. Living with his over protective grandmother and being disabled by cerebral palsy, he’s always shied away from any attention. After all, who wants to be known as a spaz by everyone (just like in the junior assembly when the principal pointed out how different he was to the entire school).

But Ben’s life is due for change even if it’s in the form of Colleen Minou, a druggie who sleeps around. Ben and Colleen forge an unlikely friendship and both their lives begin to change.

REVIEW: Ben’s transformation from being totally self-absorbed and feeling sorry for himself to a young man who sees beyond his disability and begins to connect with others is wonderful. The story makes an excellent point about disabilities and perceptions and conclusions that people all too easily jump to. 

On the other hand, Colleen’s life style is harsh and maybe too graphic. The constant drug references and her using sex as a means of satisfying her addiction and manipulating people to get what she wants – requires that the book reader be mature enough to understand the consequences and effect. I would not read this book with a class.

The good points are well made through Ben’s filming of fellow classmates. He breaks through the social perceptions of misfits and shows the beauty of humanity. The realities of drug abuse and the cost to the user are also detailed making the book a realistic look the horrifying effects of drugs – students could examine the costs to Colleen’s life.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: cause and effect, author’s purpose, comparing and contrasting (Ben before he looked outside himself and Ben after)

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Colleen recounts the night her mom’s boyfriend came into her bedroom and started rubbing her – then she notes after telling her mom who accused her of trying to ruin her (her mother’s) happiness – “I’m fucking ten years old, and I’m on my own”  (70).

Colleen use of drug – smoking a joint. “I snort a little coke” (71).

“She grabs the condom, tears the foil with her teeth, then puts it on with alarming dexterity” (152).

RELATED BOOKS: Fat Kids Rule the World, You Don’t Know Me, The Brimstone Journals, Gingerbread, The Beast, Angel Dust Blues


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

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