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December 19, 2010

Aria of the Sea

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Aria of the Sea by Dia Calhoun: Book Cover

Aria of the Sea

Author: Dia Calhoun

Reading Level: 5

Page Length: 264

Genre: Fiction

Career Connections: Dancer, Healer   

PLOT SUMMARY: After the death of her mother, Cerinthe Gale decides to follow the dream of her mother by pursuing her dancing talents.  She travels to the School of Royal Dancers, where she is accepted after the audition, although she is a commoner.  Cerinthe has the gifts of a healer.  However, she feels guilty because she was unable to save the life of her mother.  Because of this guilt, Cerinthe feels emptiness inside that is not fulfilled through her dancing. 

At the school, Cerinthe has several incidents which make her feel even more inept.  She has a disagreement with a young man she actually feels some desire for, a miscommunication with a teacher, a huge rivalry with Elliana – a very rich student, and an encounter with a mederi – a healer with magical powers.

When an accident between Cerinthe and Elliana occurs, Cerinthe is faced with the question she had earlier in her life with her mother—should she try to help Elliana or wait for the mederi to arrive?

REVIEW: This is a great book for girls from middle school to high school age who are interested in dance or any competition to read.  The characters are well developed and their feelings are easy to relate to.  The idea that a young girl can possess healing powers is intriguing and the discipline that dancers must endure is inspiring.


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

RELATED BOOKS: Avielle of Rhia, The Phoenix Dance, White Midnight


MUSIC, MOVIE, AND ART CONNECTIONS: The Turning Point (1977), The Company (2003), and Center Stage (2000)

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Amish Home

Amish Home by Raymond Bial: Book Cover

Amish Home


Author: Raymond Bial


Page Length: 40    


Reading Level: 7


Genre: Non-Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Raymond Bial writes an informative book about the history and lifestyle of the Amish people.  He illustrates with authentic pictures from the Amish communities of the northeastern states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa.

Biel summarizes the moral views of the Amish, discusses their work, family, and leisure lifestyles and how notes how their lifestyles compare with the typical American.

REVIEW: The author does an excellent job of describing the lifestyles of the Amish.  He includes their origination, the beliefs that support their lifestyle, and some of the modern technological advances they do use.

This book could be used as a supplement to a research study or enjoyed by students who like short non-fiction books.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Historical Context, Compare/Contrast, and Main Idea and Supporting Details


RELATED BOOKS: Growing Up Amish, The Amish, An Amish Family

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Saving Sarah Cain (2007), Witness (1985)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Al Capone Does My Shirts

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko: Book Cover

Al Capone Does My Shirts

Author: Gennifer Choldenko

Page Length: 225

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Historical Fiction

Career Connections: Electrician, Prison Warden, Prison Guard     

PLOT SUMMARY: Moose is not happy about the move his family has made to Alcatraz, the island that holds many famous prisoner’s hostage. His dad took the job as an electrician and prison guard, in the hopes that they would be able to place Moose’s older sister, Natalie, in a special school in San Francisco. Natalie displays signs of Autism, but in 1935 (the setting of the story) the disease had not been diagnosed. Moose is in the 7th grade and loves baseball and a good game of catch.  However, there are no boys his age on the island.

Because Moose is required to stay with Natalie every afternoon after school, he loses the one friendship he established with his schoolmate, Scout, in San Francisco.  He and Natalie form friendships with the younger children on the island and the warden’s daughter, Piper. While trying to stay out of trouble with the warden and trying to find a way to rekindle Scout’s friendship, Moose relentlessly looks for a way to keep Natalie happy and to find a convict’s baseball for Scout.

Meanwhile, his mother earnestly tries every possible avenue to ensure Natalie’s acceptance into the private school while his dad works and tries to keep the dysfunctional household in peace.

REVIEW: This is an excellent story based on historical facts about life on the island of Alcatraz in the depression years of the 1930’s.  Although the characters are fictional, they are based on authentic lives on the island during the time Al Capone was serving his sentence for tax evasion.  

The characters of the story are well-developed and the portrayal of Natalie’s symptoms of Autism is authentic.  Al Capone’s character is minimal, however, mystical in capturing the interest of the reader.  An author’s note and discussion questions and activities are included in the back of the book.

I would recommend the book for any teen or adult to read.


AREAS OF TEACHING: Historical Context, Character, Setting

RELATED BOOKS: Al Capone Shines My Shoes, Mr. Capone, Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone, Children of Alcatraz: Growing up on the Rock


MUSIC CONNECTIONS: Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Al Capone (1959)

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

A Corner of the Universe

A Corner of the Universe by Ann Martin: Book Cover

A Corner of the Universe

Author: Ann M. Martin

Page Length: 189

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

Career Connections: None         

PLOT SUMMARY: It is summertime in Millerton, and Hattie plans on spending it with her family and the adult residents of her parent’s boarding house.  She also has acquaintances she likes to visit throughout the town, but none of them are her age. The summer is fairly normal until Hattie meets her Uncle Adam who has returned to her wealthy grandparent’s house because the school he was attending closed.

Hattie had never heard of Adam, who is 21 years old.  She realizes that her mother and grandparents have not told her about him because he has mental challenges.  Adam quotes lines from “I Love Lucy” and sometimes has erratic behavior, but Hattie bonds with him and they spend many afternoons together.

When the carnival comes to town, Hattie meets Leila, daughter of the couple who own and operate the carnival.  Hattie’s grandmother will not allow Adam to go to the carnival, so Hattie encourages Adam to sneak out of his house one evening and meet her there.  Adam is intrigued with the Ferris Wheel but when he gets stuck at the top with Hattie and Leila, a disaster occurs. Hattie and Adam are both grounded and by the time Hattie is allowed to leave her house again, the carnival has left town.  As Hattie mourns the loss of her one friend in town, she observes that Adam is intrigued with Angel Valentine, a beautiful young woman who lives at the boarding house.

When Adam comes to visit Angel and finds her in bed with her boyfriend, another disaster occurs.  Hattie is required to grow up quickly and deal with some of life’s hardest lessons at a very early age.

REVIEW: The characters have vivid personalities and the small town setting of the 1960’s is authentically described.  The social practices of Hattie’s parents and grandparents, as well as, the townspeople are an accurate account of the times.

This would be an excellent book to read as a class novel for discussions about family, peer, and social relationships.


AREAS OF TEACHING: Character, Conclusion, Generalizations, and Predictions, Compare/Contrast, Conflict

RELATED BOOKS: Esperanza Rising, Becoming Naomi Leon, So B. It, The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night, Marcelo in the Real World, Here Today


MUSIC CONNECTIONS: Rain Man (1988), Mozart and the Whale (2005), Snow Cake (2006), Autism the Musical (2008), and I am Sam (2001)

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

November 26, 2010

A River Ran Wild

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A River Ran Wild

Author: Lynne Cherry

Page Length: 26 

Reading Level: 3

Genre: Non-Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: The Nashua River was once a beautiful river. The water was clear, the fish and wildlife were plentiful, and the river provided a way of the life to the Native Americans who settled along its banks. With time many changes occurred to the river. The land was cleared and fenced off; and parts of the river were claimed. Industrialization brought pollutants to the water. Soon, the river was no longer clear and no longer a healthy environment for wildlife. Marion Stoddart and others changed the fate of the Nashua River and proved that together they could a difference. They show the reader that the beauty of nature can be restored.

REVIEW: This book is easy to follow and is a well told story. It would be a great accompaniment to a science lesson on pollution and its effects. The book contains good illustrations, great pacing, and a solid conclusion. The book could be a starting point for writing letters in support of a cause or for a journal response on other things that need to be changed in society.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: sequence of events, cause and effect, making predictions


RELATED BOOKS: The Sea, the Storm, and the Mangrove Tangle, Written in Water, How Do we Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate, A New Book about Climate Science and Solutions

RELATED MOVIES: Young Voices on Climate Change, Alec: Kids vs. Global Warming, Team Marine, Girl Scouts


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

June 5, 2010

Arthur Trilogy The Seeing Stone

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Arthur Trilogy The Seeing Stone

Author: Kevin Crossley-Holland

Page Length: 338

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Young Arthur de Caldicot is growing up on the England and Wales border in 1199. As the second son, Arthur has a myriad of duties in his father’s manor. Merlin, his father’s advisor, guides Arthur’s own development. Arthur seems destined to a mediocre fate until the day that Merlin gives him the seeing stone. A great world of danger, adventure, and excitement begins to unfold before him.

REVIEW: Kevin Crossley-Holland takes the reader back to the early years in the life of King Arthur. The reader gains an understanding of what life in the year 1199 might have been like. Arthur’s good qualities are evident from an early age as the reader identifies with his respect for everyone despite their place in the manor. Arthur looks forward to growing up and becoming a knight one day. Merlin guides Arthur under the guise of guiding his father. For anyone who loves Arthurian legends, the book is a must read. For struggling readers, the length of the book as well as the vernacular of the time period would make engagement more difficult. I found the book tiresome and lacking in engagement; the last half of the book seemed much better than the first.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: character analysis, plot development, foreshadowing, effective use of dialogue, motivation, author’s purpose

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: fighting, infidelity

RELATED BOOKS: The Norse Myths, Crossing to Paradise, Storm, Waterslain Angels, Beowulf

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Camelot (1967), Excalibur (1981), The Sword in the Stone (1963)


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

November 15, 2009

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

August 30, 2009

Ashes of Roses

Ashes of Roses

Author: Mary Jane Auch

Page Length: 250

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY:  In the first decade of the 20th Century many immigrants from Europe are crossing the Atlantic to enter the United States at Ellis Island. The Nolan family is among these immigrants, coming to American to fulfill their dreams. 

Upon arriving, the youngest son was not allowed to enter because of illness. Mr. Nolan, returns to Ireland with his son. His wife and three daughters, Rose, Maureen, and Bridgett remain in the new country.  After just a few weeks of living with Mr. Nolan’s brother, Mrs. Nolan, decides America is not the country she thought, and returns to Ireland with her youngest daughter, Bridgett.

Rose, 16, and Maureen, 12, remain in America, alone and determined to be successful Americans.  Rose secures a job at a flower shop, but finds that her employer is abusive and takes advantage of his female employees.  After moving in with a Russian girl and her father, Rose takes a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, making dresses. Rose makes friends and seems to find her niche in America, when disaster hits and new challenges await the girl and her sister.

REVIEW:  This is an excellent book to read as a supplement to studies of the treatment of females and children before unions were successful in controlling labor laws. The book is filled with the challenges Rose and her family face as they struggle in the United States.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Historical Context, Point of View, Setting, Characters, Cause/Effect, Compare and Contrast

RELATED BOOKS: There Is an Isle, Through Irish Eyes, The Triangle Fire, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: The Living Century (PBS Documentary, 2000)

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Anastasia Krupnik

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Anastasia Krupnik

Author: Lois Lowry

Page Length: 113  

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Anastasia is the 10 year old daughter of her father, a professor, and her mother, an artist.  Anastasia loves to take notes and make lists in her sacred green journal.  Presently, she is keeping a list of the things she hates and the things she loves.  Some of the things she loves are writing poems, her fish (Frank), her room, and Mounds candy bars.  Some of the things she hates are her English teacher, pumpkin pie, liver, and boys.

As her tenth year passes, Anastasia realizes she doesn’t hate all boys when she develops a crush on Washburn Cummings.  She then establishes hate for her parents when they tell her they are going to have a baby.  Her lists grow and become interchangeable as she comes to many conclusions on first impressions. She changes her thoughts as time passes.

REVIEW: Anastasia is a cute girl with a delightful outlook on life.  She forms opinions quickly, but they are easily changed when events occur in her daily life.  I would recommend the book and the series that follows to middle school and junior high girls.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Character, Sequence of Events, Point of View

RELATED BOOKS: Anastasia Again!, Anastasia, Ask Your Analyst, Anastasia at Your Service, Anastasia Has the Answers, Anastasia on Her Own, Anastasia’s Chosen Career, Anastasia, Absolutely 

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Enchanted (2007), Annie (1982), Parent Trap (2004)


 REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

America’s Champion Swimmer

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America’s Champion Swimmer

Author: David A. Adler

Page Length: 30

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Non-Fiction-Biography    

PLOT SUMMARY: Gertrude Ederle was born in 1906 and lived most of her life in New York City next to her dad’s butcher shop.  When she was seven years old, she almost drowned while visiting her grandmother in Germany.  This prompted her father to teach her how to swim by tying a rope around her waist and having her jump into a river.  He told her to paddle like a dog and copy the other children’s movements. 

After this experience, it was hard to get Gertrude (Trudy) out of the water.  She became a member of the New York Women’s Swimming Association. She was member of the Olympic team that traveled to Paris in 1924 and by 1925 she had set 29 U. S. and World records.  In a time when women were considered the weaker sex, winning the medals and breaking records was not enough for Trudy.  She wanted to swim the English Channel.

She stepped up to the challenge and after making one attempt, changing coaches and undergoing more training, she achieved her goal and became an example for females around the world.

REVIEW: This is an easy to read, well illustrated book about the life of Gertrude Ederle.  At the end of the book, there is a note from the author that gives more details of the life and experiences of Gertrude.  The book could be used for the lower level reader to use as a source in writing a biography about Gertrude or for the reluctant reader to be able to read a complete book in a short period of time.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Historical context, Sequence of Events



REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner



Author: E. R.  Frank

Page Length: 242

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction         

PLOT SUMMARY: America is a 15-year-old boy who was abandoned by his drug-addicted mother.  He was sent to various foster homes, and as a young child he was repeatedly sexually abused by an “uncle”.  After becoming obsessed with matches and lighters, he set his “uncles” blanket on fire one night and watched the house burn to the ground.  He was teased for being bi-racial and was placed in various treatment centers.  America had several psychiatrists before he started working with Dr. B., after a failed suicide attempt. 

America uses terrible language and calls Dr. B many names, but the doctor patiently plays card games with America and eventually makes a breakthrough with him. After being a victim of the system for many years, America eventually learns to live on his own.  However, he never really escapes the fear of abuse, abandonment and loneliness.

REVIEW: The book is well written in chapter form that shifts from present day to the past from America’s point of view.  The descriptions of the abuse that America endured was gut wrenching and sometimes hard to read.  However, once I started reading, it was hard to put down. 

Because of the harsh language and descriptive sexual abuse, I question whether it should be on the classroom library shelves.  Teachers should be aware of its content. 

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Harsh profanity (p. 28, 48, 59, 93,135, 136,142,148 158 and the remainder of the book), sexual abuse (p. 88, 93, 98, 98, 107, and 109), descriptions of other sexual activity (158 and the remainder of the book)

It is suggested that this book be previewed for appropriateness.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Character and Cause/Effect

RELATED BOOKS: A Child Called It

MOVIE & TV CONNECTIONS: America (2009, T.V. movie), Good Will Hunting (1997)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Athletic Shorts

Athletic Shorts

Author: Chris Crutcher

Page Length: 194  

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Athletic Shorts is a book containing six short stories.  Crutcher has taken characters from his novels and writes new stories in different scenarios.  Peety, Johnny Rivers, and Telephone Man, all characters from The Crazy Horse Electric Game, appear in two different stories.  Telephone Man describes his experience of an upset stomach at school and Johnny gets Peety to volunteer to wrestle Chris Allen, an accomplished female wrestle in one of the first matches of the season.

Angus Bethune is introduced for the first time as an obese young man who has divorced parents who both live with gay partners.  Angus has been picked king of the prom, but realizes it is a practical joke.  Never the less, he prepares to dance the spotlight dance with the queen, who he learns has emotional problems of her own.

In another wrestling story, Johnny must wrestle his dad who is physically and emotionally abusive to both Johnny and his mom.  When Johnny pins his dad in front of the school he must endure the humiliation of his dad slapping him.

REVIEW:  This is an excellent book for the reluctant reader to read.  The stories are short, but emotional and deal with issues that involve teens today.  After reading Athletic Shorts, I believe the reader would want to read more of Crutcher’s work.  Chris Crutcher is an author who realistically relates to young adult readers.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Character, Conflict, Point of View, Cause and Effect, and Theme

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: racial slurs (p. 133-154), AIDS and gay themes (p. 159-194)  

RELATED BOOKS: Running Loose, Stotan!, The Crazy Horse Electric Game, Chinese Handcuffs, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Ironman, Whale Talk


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

After the War

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After the War

Author: Carol Matas

Page Length: 133

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: As World War II ends, Ruth Mendenberg has just been released from Buchenwald, one of the Nazi concentration camps. She returns home to Poland, and finds that her maid has taken over the house and she is the only survivor of her family.

She meets a man named Saul from Eretz Israel, who encourages her to travel to Palestine with him and other Jewish refugees.  Although Ruth believes there is no hope, she agrees to accompany the refugees on the journey.  When the house they are staying at is attacked, Ruth must once again hide to survive.

Ruth is put in charge of twenty orphans.  It is her job to lead them safely to Czechoslovakia, Austria, Italy, and then to Palestine. She hopes that this duty will help her forget everything that has happened. The group survives both an ambush by Poland and Czech border guards and a long train trip.  They are taken to a camp and are instructed to encourage the children to tell their stories about the war.  Ruth dreads this assignment because she does not want to dredge up her own memories. Ruth has an attraction for Zvi, one of the other older refugees, but refuses to show her emotions because she fears she will lose him, too.

On the ship to Italy, Ruth learns that her brother Simon and her Aunt Sophie have also survived the war.  The group manages to reach Eretz Israel, but are picked up by the British and sent to a camp in Syrus. Simon, who escaped the British, helps Ruth and Zvi escape. They return to Palestine, and Ruth and Zvi begin a relationship together.

REVIEW: Ruth’s and the children’s stories are bitter truths about what happened to the Jewish people during Hitler’s reign.  Matas does not spare the horrors the people suffered.  She includes the role the brave Polish people played at the risk of losing their own lives.  This is an excellent book to read in the study of the Holocaust and life after the war. 

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Sequence of Events, Setting, Point of View

RELATED BOOKS: Snow Treasure, The Upstairs Room, Number the Stars, The Book Thief

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: The Diary of Anne Frank (1995), Anne Frank Remembered (1995)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

A Hope in the Unseen

A Hope in the Unseen

Author: Ron Suskind

Page Length: 390

Reading Level: 9

Genre: Biography   

PLOT SUMMARY: This story follows Cedric Jennings through his last two years of high school and his first year of college at Brown University.   Cedric went to Ballou High School in the inner city of Washington D. C. The school had a reputation for low-achievers, a high drop out rate, and few students who went on to attend four-year universities.

Cedric’s mother, Barbara, raised Cedric with the intentions of having him be professionally successful by instilling in him a respect for education and a strong, spiritual background. His father had a degree, but he was a heroin addict who served prison time for various associated crimes.

After his junior year of high school, Cedric attended a summer conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Cedric’s dream was to attend school there, but when he was not accepted he applied to Brown University (also an Ivy League school). As an honor student at Ballou High School, Cedric was often taunted by other students and was eager to graduate and leave the poverty filled environment. After an article was written about him in the Wall Street Journal, Cedric was invited to visit Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas for a meeting.  That meeting, in which Justice Thomas challenges Cedric and tells him that he will be among many smart white students at Brown, is chronicled on pages 116-123.

Cedric graduates from high school with many honors, but when he reaches Brown University, he finds he is one of the lowest achievers.  He not only must work hard academically, but he also finds that he doesn’t belong in any special place in the population of Brown.  He doesn’t want to associate with only African Americans, but Cedric finds that he doesn’t fit in with the materialistic, white males in his dorm unit, either. He experiences a lot of conflict with his roommate, Rob.  However, Cedric does form a good friendship with one white boy who shares a love of music with him. Cedric also makes friends with one, rather odd, white girl. He also meets a black girl who becomes a life-long friend.

Cedric considers majoring in math but has an interest in education, too.  He writes a poignant paragraph after observing a high school classroom for one of his education classes that appears on page 338. Through his academic and social struggles, Cedric begins to question some of his thoughts about his religious beliefs and his relationship and attitudes towards both of his parents.

The epilogue on pages 362-365 summarizes where Cedric is emotionally, spiritually, socially and professionally at the end of his college experience.

REVIEW: This book describes the hardships that Cedric endured as a strong-willed, intelligent African American male in not only a low-income environment but prominent Ivy League surroundings. It is an accurate depiction of attitudes in both cultures. 

I felt it was a bit lengthy and quite serious.  I would recommend it only to college bound high school students with interests in social or education professions.  However, I think it is an excellent book for high school teachers to read who teach in inner city or low income schools.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: harsh profanity (p. 57, 58, 126, 207, 216, 225, 226, 280, and 351), reference to sexual act (p. 200), references of drug use throughout the book

AREAS OF TEACHING: Character, Conclusions, Generalizations, and Predictions, Cultural Diversity, Racial Differences, Theme, Conflict, and Mood

RELATED BOOKS: Things Fall Apart, Monkey Bridge, The Best of Simple, Middle Passage, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Tutu and Franklin: A Journey Towards Peace (2001, PBS Documentary)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner



Author: Kenneth Oppel

Page Length: 501

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Adventure, Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: After saving the life of a man stranded in a lone balloon, Matt Cruse returns to his duties as a poor but faithful cabin boy aboard the magnificent passenger airship, Aurora. The rescued man later dies but leaves his notebook of various sketchings and notes. Months later, Matt comes in contact with the granddaughter of the man he saved, the rich Kate DeVries. Kate has come aboard the Aurora for the sole purpose of finding out what her grandfather saw in the air on his last balloon adventure. According to her grandfather’s sketchings and notes, he came in contact with a glorious, unrecognizable, bird-like creature.

Well into the Aurora’s trip over the seas, pirates take hold of the airship, steal a number of valuables, and render the ship useless. Unbeknownst to the pirates who have fled, the Aurora crash lands on a remote island. The ship’s crew begins to repair the vessel in hopes of saving themselves. Kate takes this time to explore the flora and fauna of the island. During this time, she comes across the bones of the great winged animal her father came in contact with. This wets Kate’s appetite even more to capture additional evidence of the undiscovered creature. Since, during this time period, females were not regarded as being true explorers and scientists, Kate sets out to prove society wrong. It is also her mission to prove that her grandfather was correct in what he saw before he died.

On another venture into the island woods, Matt, Kate, and Bruce come in contact with one of the living bird creatures. Matt and Kate call the creature “cloud cat” based on its appearance and temperament. When the “cloud cat” attacks the three, they run away. Bruce is injured in the escape while Matt and Kate take off in a different direction. Then Matt and Kate come upon the same pirates that attacked the Aurora several days ago. After being captured by the pirates and sentenced to their death, Matt and Kate escape and hook back up with Bruce at the Aurora. It is here that they discover that the pirates have taken the ship hostage again. Matt, Kate, and Bruce set out to take back control of the ship and dispel the pirates. In successfully doing so, Bruce is killed.

The story then flashes forward six months. Kate is seen at a museum with the bones of her “cloud cat” on display. She hopes to settle at a university possibly in Paris. Matt has entered the flight Academy in Paris in hopes to one day return to the Aurora – his home.

REVIEW: I enjoyed this book a lot. Several chapters into reading, I felt as if it were a blend of Lord of the Flies and “Titanic”. The story was action-packed and the setting of both the giant ship, Aurora, and the island were vividly painted.

The themes of rich vs. poor, air vs. land, good vs. evil run throughout the book.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: characterization, comparison and contrast, pair this book with a reading of Lord of the Flies and a viewing of the “Titanic”.

RELATED BOOKS: Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel – sequel to Airborn

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: “Titanic” (1997), “Cast Away” (2000)

RELATED WEBSITES: (animated informational website about the book and author) (123 page literature unit packet of activities)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

August 8, 2009

A Northern Light

Filed under: *AWESOME BOOKS!!!,A — thebookreviews @ 7:33 pm
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A Northern Light

Author: Jennifer Donnelly

Page Length: 386

Reading Level:  7

Genre:  Mystery, Romance, Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: The intelligent 16 year old girl, Mattie Gokey, secretly chooses a “word of the day” from a hidden dictionary. She is a bright student and aspires to finish high school, to go to college in New York, and to become a writer. However, in 1906 women were not expected to do such things. They were expected to marry, have babies, and take care of the house/farm. She uses her “word of the day” to escape the hardships she endures on a daily basis. Her father, despite the request of her teacher, refuses to let her entertain the thought of going to college. Due to the recent death of her mother, she must bare the burden of raising her sisters while her father struggles over his farm. Mattie, a self-proclaimed plain-girl, finds herself attracted to handsome Royal Loomis. To Mattie’s surprise, Royal is also attracted to her but he has no interest in reading books. He only has an interest in farming. Although she enjoys his company, they are polar opposites when it comes to obtaining fulfillment within a romantic relationship. The plot thickens when a guest at the Glenmore Hotel where Mattie works, Grace Brown, drowns. Earlier in the day, Grace had given Mattie a bundle of letters to burn. Mattie forgot about the letters and was too busy to burn them. Her curiosity got the better of her and she began to read them; ultimately inferring from the letters and piecing together the identity of Grace’s male guest that Grace may have been murdered. Does Mattie get to go to college or is she forced to marry Royal? Was Grace Brown really murdered? If so, who murdered her? Who was really her teacher? Does Mattie become a writer herself or is she trapped working on her father’s farm?  Does she keep her promise to her dead mother?

REVIEW: This book is a truly coming-of-age novel intertwined with romance, mystery, and history. The author through her words is able to evoke the emotions felt by Mattie as she grapples with life’s difficult choices. At a time in Mattie’s life when all she wants to do is read any book she can find and save money for college, she feels she must choose what is best for her family. Mattie is also haunted by the promise she made to her dying mother: that Mattie never leave her father and younger siblings. By reading Grace’s letters, Mattie finds her voice and a determination to live her own life. The many subplots throughout the story provide the reader with constant curiosity as to what is going to happen next. The reader finds oneself constantly asking the question, “What would I do, if I was in this situation?” Therefore, this thought provoking book leaves the reader with an unintentional examination of self.

AREAS FOR TEACHING:  setting, characterization, plot, theme, compare/contrast, cause/effect, point of view, inference, writer’s motive, voice, mood, and tone, word choice, audience and purpose

RELATED BOOKS:   An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser,  East by Edith Pattou, Just in Case by Meg Rosoff,  The Tailor’s Daughter: A Novel by Janice Graham,  A Great and Terrible Beauty (The Gemma Boyle Trilogy) by Libba Bray, Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor.  Books by the same author: A Gathering Light, The Tea Rose, Humble Pie, The Winter Rose

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: A Place in the Sun (1991), An American Tragedy (2007), October Sky (1999), Friday Night Lights (2004)


REVIEWED BY:  Tammy Leitzel



Author: Graham McNamee

Page Length: 210  

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Duncan’s dad found him a summer job working at the Toronto Transit Lost and Found, with an older man, Jacob.  The job is boring and Duncan feels as though he lives in a coffin, far below the surface of the Earth.  As he whiles away the hours of tagging and sorting the items, Duncan comes across a leather bound journal.  He becomes enthralled with the book as the author describes his devastating childhood, trapped in a room by his grandmother.  Duncan reads on to learn that the man stalks young women and comes to the conclusion that the man’s future plans include killing the women. 

In the previous year, Duncan feels that he was responsible for a young girl’s drowning.  To avenge this guilt from that year, Duncan decides to track down the serial killer. He employs his two best friends, Vinny and Wayne to help him find “Roach”.  Vinny performs a lot of investigative work to find the type of personality the boys are tracking.  However, in vain attempts, the boys cannot come up with a suspect.

Then, a man comes to the transit station to ask about a lost journal.  When Duncan realizes this is “Roach”, he asks Wayne to help him break into Roach’s home to find clues.  When Roach returns home while Duncan is in the house, a fight and chase break out and Duncan realizes his life is in danger.

REVIEW: In the beginning, the story was a little slow.  However, when Duncan begins reading the journal and realizes that its author is a potential serial killer, the plot “accelerates”.  The story is very suspenseful and a very good read for the male reluctant reader.  It is fast paced and borders on being a book of horror. It is the best mystery I have read in the young adult novels.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Setting, Conflict, Plot, Point of View and Conclusion, Generalizations, and Predictions

RELATED BOOKS: I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Pigman, 145th Street, The Boyfriend, The Girlfriend

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: I Know What You Did Last Summer (1998), Disturbing Behavior (1998), Final Destination (2000)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

A Step from Heaven

Filed under: A — thebookreviews @ 7:23 pm
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A Step from Heaven

Author: An Na        

Page Length: 160  

Reading Level: 5.5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Young Ju Parks moves with her parents from Korea to America when she is four years old.  She has heard stories of Mi Gook, the Korean name for America, and believes she is moving to heaven.  After a very long ride on an airplane, the Parks arrive.  However, what they encounter is not heaven.

First, the father, Apa, must find work.  Then, mother, Uhmma, has a new baby boy, Joon.  The family struggles to be like Americans, but there is not enough money to get ahead.  Eventually, both parents have two jobs, and still rent an apartment and drive a dated station wagon. The family struggles with the language barrier and adapting to the American culture.

As Young Ju does experience success at school, she witnesses her parent’s relationship crumble, her father turn to alcoholism and her brother skip school.  She is forbidden to associate with her best friend, Amanda, because she is a frivolous American girl.  As Young Ju matures into a high school student she strives to make good grades so that she can attend college.

REVIEW:  An Na writes her first novel from her own first memories of moving to American from Korea.  She uses Young Ju as the narrator and explains the story of a young Korean family whose dreams of a “good life” in America never develop.  The book is written in vignettes, and chronicles Young Ju’s life from the time she is four until she graduates from high school.

The characters are developed so that the reader feels empathy for each of them in their dire situations.  This book is an excellent book for the high school student who lives in a diverse community. It helps to understand the difficulties immigrants experience as they are moved into the American culture but attempt to maintain their own cultural heritage.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Setting, Point of View, Conflict, and Characters

TOUCHY AREAS: Domestic violence by the father to the mother and children

RELATED BOOKS: The House on Mango Street, Angela’s Ashes

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Ariring: The Korean-American Journey (2003)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

A Perfect Snow

Filed under: A — thebookreviews @ 7:20 pm
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A Perfect Snow

Author: Nora Martin

Page Length: 144  

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: When Ben and his family move to a small town in Montana, Ben is angry.  He is upset that his father has lost his job, and he is angry that he lives in a mobile home in a rundown trailer park.  When his younger brother is beat up by Jason Johnson, Ben becomes angrier.  After attending some neighborhood meetings at the local mechanic’s shop, Ben becomes involved with Chuck and Travis.  Their extra-curricular activities involve spraying graffiti on a synagogue and throwing a rock through a window of a young boy’s home.  At first, this gives Ben a feeling of power.  However, when his younger brother, David, becomes involved in the hate crimes Ben realizes that he is guilty of being racially prejudice.

Ben avoids confrontation with Chuck, Travis, and his brother by busying himself with his girlfriend, Eden.  He develops a friendship with Jason Johnson while they fulfill community service they were assigned for fighting at school.   However, as the hate crimes become more serious, Ben is forced to go to the police and admit his prior involvement with the group.  He finds himself estranged not only from his family, but from Eden.  Ironically, Jason, his first enemy in the small town, becomes his only ally.

REVIEW: This is a book which captures the reader’s attention from the first page.  The author develops the characters of Ben, as the protagonist, and David, his younger brother, as the antagonist.  The book demonstrates how people with different attitudes can be easily influenced into developing social ideas that are prejudiced and judgmental.  It also shows that parents are often blind to events that are happening in their children’s lives.

This is a good book for young adults to read to see how easily racial opinions and prejudices can be formed.  It could be used in conjunction with the reading of To Kill a Mockingbird, as a comparison of our modern day prejudices.

 AREAS FOR TEACHING: Theme, Point of View, Characters, and Cause and Effect

TOUCHY AREAS: White supremacy is the major theme of the book.  Hate crimes are committed, but the violence is not written in too graphic of terms to be offensives to the young adult reader.

RELATED BOOKS: The Bully in the Book and in the Classroom, The Outsiders, To Kill a Mockingbird

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Gran Torino (2008), Gone Baby Gone (2007), Remember the Titans (2000)


 REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

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