The Book Reviews – Website

January 1, 2011

What Athletes Are Made Of

What Athletes Are Made Of

Author and Illustrator: Hanoch Piven and Sarah Thompson

Page Length: 34

Reading Level: 5.1

Genre: Biography

Career Connection: Professional Athletes

SUMMARY & REVIEW: This book is for the sports lover written by a sports lover.

We learn that Muhammad Ali had a “big mouth”, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar coached high school on an Apache reservation, Babe Ruth had a huge appetite, Jesse Owens proved Hitler wrong, Tiger Woods considers himself a “Cablinasian”, David Beckham once wore pink nail polish to match his girlfriends, and Pele played with a soccer ball made of a sock stuffed with newspapers. These are just a few facts that packed into this creative book filled with 23 mini-biographies of athletes. Each biography is 5-10 sentences long.

The first page provides the reader an introduction to why athletes and sports games are enjoyable to watch and respected. The author begins each mini biography with the following line:

“Athletes are made of…”

At the end of each biography, the author provides the reader with a “Did You Know” fact relating to either the athlete or his/her sport.

At the end of the book, a “Post-Game Recap” with statistics and career highlights of all the athletes is featured.  

The following athletes are highlighted in this book: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Andre Agassi, Muhammad Ali, Lance Armstrong, David Beckham, Joe DiMaggio, Jeff Gordon, Wayne Gretzky, Mia Hamm, Michael Jordan, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Diego Maradona, Joe Namath, Martina Navratilova, Jesse Owens, Pele, Babe Ruth, Michael Schumacher, Annika Sorenstam, Jim Thorpe, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, and Tiger Woods.

The sports represented in this book include basketball, tennis, boxing, cycling, soccer, baseball, racing, track and field, football, golf, pentathlon, and decathlon.

This is a very creative book. It not only provides the reader a clear and concise biography of each athlete, each individual is illustrated using traditional drawings as well as objects. For example, Tiger Woods’ eye brows are illustrated using “nails”. Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s legs are illustrated using “rulers”. Lance Armstrong’s mouth is illustrated using a “rubber band”.

The only criticism I have with this book is that the majority of the athletes students may not recognize. This book may not be engaging for students if left to read on their own. However, providing insight into unfamiliar athletes provides the teacher and student an opportunity for new learning. The addition of mini-biographies will help students engage with the book as compared to other lengthier biographies. Students will most likely recognize Lance Armstrong, Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, and Tiger Woods.

Students with a passion for art will enjoy this book. This would be a great book to share with art teachers.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: art, biography, compare/contrast


RELATED BOOKS: What Presidents Are Made Of by Hanoch Piven, Xtreme Sports Fast Track by Joe Layden, Amazing But True Sports Stories by Hollander

ART CONNECTIONS: (art work website of the author)


REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

What They Always Tell Us

What They Always Tell Us

Author: Martin Wilson

Page Length: 288

Reading Level: 4.8

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Career Connection: None

PLOT SUMMARY: James and Alex have grown up together as close siblings. People often considered them twins because they were similar in many ways. James and Alex are one grade level apart. The book takes the reader through an entire year of high school – James’ senior year and Alex’s junior year.

The school year begins with a big party at which time Alex chugs down a bottle of Pine Sol. He is rushed to the hospital where he fortunately recovers. However no one, not even his once close brother, knows why Alex attempted suicide.

Alex’s beginning junior year is filled with studying, visits to his therapist, and avoidance from former friends such as Tyler. Alex becomes an isolated homebody, a recluse.

James’ beginning senior year is filled with questions about his brother’s suicide attempt and daily “weird” behavior.

When James’ friend, Nathen, befriends Alex, Nathen encourages Alex to try out for the cross-country team. To prepare, Nathen and Alex begin a training workout together and develop a close friendship. At first, James is glad that his brother is out of the house and doing something “normal”. However, little does he know that the side activities that Nathen and Alex engage in are more intimate than mere cross-country teammates.

REVIEW: This is a beautifully written coming-of-age story for both Alex and James – two brothers that were once close and have now grown apart due to lack of communication. The reader will discover the character of Alex as one who is caught in the confusing maturation process during high school – cut off from his friends because he is “not acting like them” – not dating, not chasing girls. Alex’s cry for attention during his suicide attempt backfires for him as he experiences increased bullying from former friends. However, once James realizes his brother’s “true feelings”, the two grow closer together once more.

This is a great story of brotherly bonding. The story works because this is the central theme of the story – not the supplemental gay themes. However, both are intertwined. The gay relationship and intimate scenes between Nathen and Alex are maturely written in context of the plot.

Any male who has a brother struggling with a part of themselves as they mature will understand this story. This story contains characters with fresh voices. It is a book that is calmly written and one that will take many readers with siblings on a trip down memory lane.  

There is also an intriguing subplot in this story that deals with a young boy named Henry in search of his real father.

This book is written in third-person point-of-view. Odd-numbered chapters focus on Alex while even-numbered chapters focus on James.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: characterization, text to world, compare/contrast, prediction

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: there are several pages that list words such as “gay, faggot, queer”, a few scenes depict intimate scenes between two teenage males, and page 120 depicts one of those scenes

RELATED BOOKS: Crush by Carrie Mac, Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, Big Guy by Robin Stevenson, Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher, Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde, Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters

RELATED WEBSITES: (GLBTQ book discussion guide) (author’s website) (podcast)

REVIEWED BY: K. Stratton

January 18, 2009

When Dad Killed Mom

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When Dad Killed Mom

Author: Julius Lester 

Page Length: 199

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Jenna and Jeremy were living a typical day at school when they were called into the office. Seeing each other there together and sensing the tension of those around them they knew bad news was coming, but they had no idea it would be this devastating. Just this morning, as they sat innocently in class, their own father gunned down their mother. They have nowhere to go and no one to turn to. Torn apart by this tragedy, Jenna and Jeremy grow distant from each other. Jenna has her own guilty conscience and terrible secret. Jeremy who was always by his mother’s side is lost without her. Why would dad do something like this? What will happen to Jenna and Jeremy?

REVIEW: As many of the reviews note, this story line could have been ripped from any headline. The subject matter of domestic violence will be relative to many students. I like how Lester differentiates the viewpoints and experiences between Jenna and Jeremy.

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

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: “I had drawn a vagina on the bathroom walls” (page 11), language (page 146), knowledge of affairs, father having suggestive contact with daughter

RELATED BOOKS: The Color Purple, Shining, Why Heaven is Far Away, Days of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

December 12, 2008


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Author: Karen Hesse

Page Length: 161

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Realistic Fiction written in Verse

PLOT SUMMARY: The setting of the story is in Vermont, in 1924.  Ten characters of the small community tell the story in verse.  It is the story of two young girls, Leanora, an African American whose mother has died, and Esther who is Jewish.  Neither is welcome in the community anymore because it has fallen under the influence of the Ku Klux Klan.  The other characters range in age from teen-ager to middle 60’s.  Some of the characters refuse to join the Klan and others become active.  With the Klan growing, violence increases.  However, the community eventually pulls together to find hope and redemption.

REVIEW: The setting of the story surprised me, in that, I was not aware the Ku Klux Klan was active in the North.  The story is told in verse, and could be read aloud as a play. The characters are vivid not only in their descriptions but also in their actions.  Each of them distinctly reflects a response that would be typical of real life when an influential association infiltrates a community.  Although set in the early 1900’s, this would be a good novel to study in conjunction with study of Hitler’s influence over the Nazi party and the Civil Rights Movement in America.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Some violence but it correlates with the theme of the book.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Verse writing, Theme, Conflict, Historical Context, Setting, and Character

RELATED BOOKS: To Kill a Mockingbird, A Time to Kill

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), A Time to Kill (1996)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

December 7, 2008

Wrestling Sturbridge

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Wrestling Sturbridge

Author: Rich Wallace

Page Length: 133

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Have you ever wanted something so bad you can almost taste it? Victory seems so close but it’s just out of reach? Benny is a member of the championship Sturbridge wrestling team. He wants to so badly to win state. The problem is that his friend Al is number one and no matter how hard he tries he just can’t seem to beat him. But Benny never gives up. Every challenge match he has, he tries to outdo Al. He can feel the drive and he’s determined to win. Can he out match Al? Will the coach even see his true talent before it’s too late?

REVIEW: For wrestling fans, this book is a must. For the rest of us, it’s still an interesting read because there is more depth to the story than just a wrestling match. Victory in wrestling symbolizes Benny’s victories over his life and insecurities. The book also details a mild romance between Kim and Benny and deals lightly with the fact that they are from two different races. I was a little confused by the dad’s habit of stealing things — it’s just almost seemed out of place and totally unnecessary for the book. Overall, the book is compact and the action of preparing for the next big match keeps the reader turning the page. The short descriptive facts between chapters also help the reader get to know Benny better (it develops a kinship with the reader almost as if he is revealing secrets about himself that no one else knows).

AREAS FOR TEACHING: sequence, author’s purpose, character motivations, point of view (Grandma about Kim), cause and effect

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: some mild race issues, under-age drinking, mild sexual references

RELATED BOOKS: Playing Without the Ball, The Roar of the Crowd, Losing Is Not an Option, Perpetual Check, One Good Punch, Emergency Quarterback 



REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

December 5, 2008

White-Out Blizzards

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White-Out Blizzards

Author: Claire Watts

Page Length: 48

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Non-Fiction

REVIEW: White-Out Blizzards is a fact-filled book about the natural disaster of the same name. It is a part of the “Turbulent Planet” series that highlights various occurrences in nature from an “engaging science text” format. From awesome pictures of snow caves, avalanches, and storms to historical accounts of the French army dying from freezing temperatures, this book makes a great companion to any required science textbook. In addition to pictures and facts, the book contains defined vocabulary at the bottom of every page, predictive questions, survival tips, and actual written accounts of human experiences in a blizzard.

I was intrigued by the explanation about the 7 main types of snow-flakes. The book is helpful in that it provides the reader with tips on what to do if one’s car gets stuck in a blizzard. A blizzard checklist of supplies for one’s home and a checklist for one’s car is also provided. Some students may be able to relate directly to the topic of blizzards as they may have encountered them sometime in their lives.

The book concludes with suggestions for further books to read on the topic as well as how to search for “blizzards” on the Internet. A glossary and index are also provided at the back.

I would definitely recommend this book to students, especially to those that struggle with an interest in science and nature.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: vocabulary, predictions, fact vs. opinion, text to text, text to self, text to world, historical context, reading a map, literature connections

RELATED BOOKS: Arctic Explorer: The Story of Matthew Henson by Jeri Ferris, Blizzards by Jean Allen, Blizzard! The Storm That Changed America by Jim Murphy, Nature on the Rampage: Blizzards by Duncan Scheff, other books in the
“Turbulent Planet” series

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: “Everest” (1998), “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004)


REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

August 6, 2008

What’s Your Angle Pythagoras?

What’s Your Angle Pythagoras?

Author: Julie Ellis

Illustrator: Phyllis Hornung

Page Length: 32

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction, Math Word Problems

PLOT SUMMARY & REVIEW: In this fictional story, a young and curious Pythagoras discovers a unique number pattern that uses right triangles to help his father sail directly from Rhodes to Crete without getting lost. Pythagoras also uses this number pattern to help some of the adults in his community climb to the roof of a temple with an appropriate sized ladder. In addition, Pythagoras uses the pattern to help secure the temple’s columns.

The formula known as the Pythagorean Theorem is below.

Given a right triangle, where “a” and “b” are the shortest sides and “c” is the longest side: if you take “a” and multiply it’s length by itself then take “b” and multiply it’s length by itself and then add both sums, it will equal the sum of side “c” multiplied by itself.

a squared + b squared = c squared

This book is a simple and fun way to introduce the Pythagorean Theorem to students. I would not teach this theorem solely using this book as some students who are more “math oriented” may find learning math using a narrative, confusing. However for those who love to read yet shy away from math, this book would be a good tool to use.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: predictions, cause/effect, geometry skills

RELATED BOOKS: Books in the Math Adventures series: Sir Cumference and the Isle of Immeter, Cut Down to Size at High Noon, & Sold! A Mothematics Adventure


REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton



Author: A. LaFaye

Page Length: 144

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: The time period is the 1800’s. Nathaniel Peale and his mother and father have moved from the city to the country life of Nebraska. Nathaniel’s father farms while his mother repairs clocks and other various objects. After a lightening storm spooks some of the animals on the farm, Nathaniel falls and crushes his leg under a wagon wheel. As a result, Nathaniel is unable to help his father on the farm anymore. This is a significant turning point in the lives of the Peale family. Nathaniel’s father, out of guilt, avoids his son at all costs. Then in an effort to replace his son on the farm, Mr. Peale obtains an orphan named John Worth through “The Orphan Train”. Mrs. Peale is furious at her husband for bringing an orphan into their home to work. As a result, their husband and wife relationship becomes strained.

The relationship between Nathaniel and John is also a strained one. Nathaniel tries his hardest to hate the boy, and is very much jealous that John gets to spend so much time with Nathaniel’s father. However, upon discovering that John’s parents died in a fire, Nathaniel slowly begins to warm up to his new family member. Nathaniel can understand about losing a loved one because his sister died. Nathaniel and John further bond because John is good at math, and Nathaniel is not. And Nathaniel, with the assistance of regular schooling, helps John at reading.

Beyond the storms at home, dark clouds are forming in the community. There is a land feud between “farmers” and “ranchers”. The ranchers aggravate the farmers by cutting their fences and allowing the cattle to graze on the farm land. With the teamwork of Nathaniel and John, both boys solve the case of who exactly has been cutting the fences. Nathaniel’s father discovers this teamwork and subsequently begins to mend his distant relationship with his real son. In the end, the unconventional family structure of the Peale’s turns out to be a very good one.

REVIEW: The issue of adoption is addressed in a very real manner in this book. John Worth was obtained from an orphan train. During the late 1800’s, adults would actually obtain children from these trains to live and work on farms. The author, through the use of real dialogue and powerful description, forces the reader into this family’s tense life. I enjoyed this book, not because it was easy to read, but because it seemed very authentic. Writing from the point-of-view of a teenager who feels that his father has disowned him because of his disability, I could almost feel the boy’s pain. And to feel that an adopted boy is allowed into the Peale home to replace their real son, was even more emotional to read. However, great writing comes when emotions are stirred within the reader.

Also, the mental state of someone who has just become disabled is explored in this story – not only in the context of family and community but of school as well.

On another note, the author does a beautiful job intertwining mythology into Nathaniel and John’s characters as they are off on an adventure to capture the fence cutting culprits.

For convenience, a “Reading Guide” with questions and activities is found at the back of the book.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: simile (pages 21 & 32), theme, characterization, conflict, & predictions

RELATED BOOKS: A Family Apart (The Orphan Train Adventure series), McGuffrey Reader, books about Greek mythology

MOVIE CONNECTIONS:Orphan Train” (1979)

RELATED WEBSITES: (historical website about the Nebraska Orphan Trains) (Literature Circle with questions/answers & activities) (excellent site that addresses pre-reading strategies, predictions, and cross-curriculum activities)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

May 28, 2008

What My Mother Doesn’t Know

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What My Mother Doesn’t Know

Author:  Sonya Sones

Page Length: 259  

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Poetry

PLOT SUMMARY: The book is written as a series of poems narrated by Sophie, a fourteen year old girl at the beginning of the school year. Sophie shares the events in her life by describing her feelings through her everyday experiences. 

Sophie shares her relationship with her boyfriend, Dylan.  The reader learns of her life-long friends, Rachel and Grace.  Sophie includes the dysfunctional elements of her family life.  After a break-up with Dylan, a rather mystical relationship occurs with a most surprising person.  

REVIEW: The entire book is written in poetry form.  It is a very fast read as Sonya Sones connects the reader very quickly with Sophie’s inner being. I liked the way each poem went in chronological order of the happenings in Sophie’s life. 

Some of the poems I especially enjoyed were: “Close to Midnight” (p. 55), “Long Weekend” (p. 62), “When Dylan Wakes Up” (p. 68), “Cyber Soul Mate” (p.87), “Litterbox ICG” (p. 102), “What I Want” (p. 139), “I’d Pictured It Before” (p. 142-144), “He Took Me There This Afternoon” (p. 190), “Heading Home” (p. 206), and “I Tell Him How Much I Love His Wall” (p. 223).  All of these poems except “I’d Pictured It Before” are of a romantic nature—sensitive, with feelings.

I think junior high through high school girls would especially enjoy this book. It is a good book to introduce the young adult to poetry, because it is not poetry set in rhyme or rhythmic verse.


TOUCHY AREAS: Female puberty (p. 47 & 49)

RELATED BOOKS: What My Girlfriend Doesn’t Know, One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, Stop Pretending


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

May 16, 2008

Wanted Dead or Alive The True Story of Harriet Tubman

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Wanted Dead or Alive The True Story of Harriet Tubman

Author: Ann McGovern

Page Length: 60

Reading Level: 4.5

Genre: Biography


PLOT SUMMARY: The story of Harriet Tubman began in 1820 when she was born on a plantation in Maryland to the Negro slaves, known as Ben and Old Rit.  At only the age of 7, Harriet was sold to another slave owner to take care of a baby.  When the baby cried, Harriet’s mistress beat her with a rawhide whip.  When Harriet found the opportunity, she ran away.  However, being so young and fragile, she soon returned to her owner who took her back to her original master. 


Although she was young, she knew she did not want to live as a captive slave all of her life. When she heard others talk of the Underground Railroad and freedom in the northern states and Canada, she knew she would one day be free herself. 


Harriet grew and became stronger.  She worked in the fields on the plantation.  She met a free man, John Tubman and they were married.  However, Harriet had the desire to be free and John was not willing to move north with her, so she left him after four years of marriage.


Harriet did make it to the north, but was not satisfied with just being free herself.  She longed to help her family and other black slaves find their freedom.  For the remainder of her life, Harriet helped black people get their freedom.


REVIEW: This book would be good to use as an introduction to slaveryand the conditions of the south prior to the Civil War.  It is a quick read and would be a good book for a lower level reading student who is required to read a book dealing with slavery, the Civil War, or Civil Rights.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: Sequence of Events


RELATED BOOKS: The Story of George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglas




REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner


May 2, 2008

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

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When Zachary Beaver Came to Town

Author: Kimberly Holt

Page Length: 227

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Cal and Toby are two junior boys growing up in the small town of Antler, Texas. Cal’s older brother, Wayne, is away fighting in Vietnam. It seems like an ordinary summer. Nothing much exciting ever happens in Antler until the day the small trailer decorated with Christmas lights comes to town. The trailer contains a side show act– a 643 pound boy (claimed to be the fattest kid in the world) named Zachary Beaver. The town folk of Antler line up to gawk at Zachary who quickly becomes the talk of the town.

Cal and Toby feel sorry for Zachary when his manager leaves town for two weeks. They begin to leave food on his doorstep. Cal and Toby eventually befriend Zachary and even take him to a movie one night.

Meanwhile, Toby’s mother is gone away to Nashville to pursue her dream of becoming a country singer. Cal never answers his letters from Wayne in Vietnam, and no matter how hard Toby tries; Scarlett only has eyes for Juan. The sheriff is threatening to notify the authorities about Zachary’s abandonment. Cal is devastated by the news his family receives. Toby is angry and can’t seem to face the truth. Is there hope for Zachary? Can Toby pull himself together in time to save his friendship and his family?

REVIEW: The lessons in this book are excellent: overcoming your fears, seeing the person behind their appearance, realizing that you can’t make someone love/like you, and the importance of family.

However, the topic was strange (are there still traveling side shows??). I found the book mediocre; I would like to have seen Zachary’s life changed more dramatically.

This book is a National Book Award winner and it certainly does take compositional risk – so in that sense it might be good for teaching students to break outside the ordinary when they write.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: theme, setting, characterization, plot, sequence of events, audience, author’s purpose, tone

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: a baptism takes place, Vietnam – loss of a loved one, the issue of weight and appearance, Alzheimer’s

RELATED BOOKS: My Louisiana Sky, Mister and Me, Part of Me, Keeper of the Night

RELATED MOVIES: When Zachary Beaver Came to Town (2003), What’s Eating Gilbert Grape


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

April 15, 2008

Who Owns Kelly Paddick

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Who Owns Kelly Paddick

Author: Beth Goobie

Page Length: 89

Reading Level: 3.1

Genre: Fiction


PLOT SUMMARY: When Kelly Paddick is brought to the Marymound School for Girls, she has no idea that her life is on the brink of an amazing transformation.  As a victim of sexual abuse, survival and escape are the only things Kelly has learned from life.  Yet with the help of  Sister Mary, a social worker, and a friend named Chris she begins to realize that she can’t keep running from her problems. 


In order to reach that understanding Kelly must first learn to avoid tangling with “Pit Bull”, the teen bully who lives in her building.  In her jealousy and insecurity, Pit Bull antagonizes and manipulates Kelly.  Yet, during her months at Marymound, Kelly comes to the understanding that Pit Bull is only acting out of her own fear and self-hate.


When Kelly finally gets her chance to escape the girls’ facility, she decides that running away won’t dissolve the awful memories that haunt her.  Instead, with the help of Chris, Kelly attempts a new strategy: trust.  Kelly learns that Chris has also dealt with sexual abuse, and by talking about her ordeal has learned to survive it.


In the end, Kelly learns that her father and his abusive tendencies no longer own her.  And most importantly, just as Sister’s Mary’s poster proclaimed, Kelly finally learns to “love herself”.


REVIEW: Who Owns Kelly Paddick is one of the Orca Sounding books, and so it’s great for teens reading at the elementary level.  It’s also a good book for students who enjoy realistic fiction.  Though some of the slang is out of date, the situations are true to life. It’s no secret that sexual abusive is a prevalent problem in our society.  Victims often search for ways to escape their pain, and of course some get lost in self-blame.  For this reason, I think Who Owns Kelly Paddick could really benefit any student with a history of abuse.  If you have a student hooked on the Orca Sounding’s series I highly recommend this book!


TOUCHY AREAS: This book touches upon sexual abuse, and self-inflicted injuries. Though the topics may be heavy, they are presented in a very appropriate fashion.


RELATED WEBSITES:§ion=Facts+for+Families


REVIEWED BY: Jennifer John

April 10, 2008

Whale Talk

Whale Talk

Author: Chris Crutcher

Page Length: 220

Reading Level: 7.2


PLOT SUMMARY & REVIEW: T. J. Jones has just graduated from Cutter High School.  T. J. is of mixed racial descent (Japanese, African-American and White) and was adopted after being taken from his drug addicted mother and put in C. P. S. Although T. J. is very athletic, he chose not to participate in any high school sports until approached by his journalism teacher, Mr. Simet, the second day of school. 


Crutcher writes the book with T. J. as the narrator, retelling the events of his senior year. 


T. J. helps coach Simet put together a swim team.  His primary objective being — they all earn letter jackets—an elite privilege held specifically for the bullying, prejudice football players who do not feel the swim team is worthy of wearing. 


The team is made up of a group of outcasts with T. J as the only real swimmer.


The story evolves around the training and swim meets of the Cutter All Night Mermen.  After training, traveling, competing, and eating pizza during the winter season they begin to let down their guards and bond into a “real” team.


The book goes much deeper into J. T.’s past which involved being physically abused.  His father also has a haunting past which he deals with through, “Whale Talk”.   Through their experiences, they become involved with Heidi, a young girl who is also a racial mix and suffering from child abuse.  As they begin to help her, they become an enemy of the girl’s stepfather who is one of the Cutter football alumni.  He is the mentor to Mike Barbour, a senior football player who has a personal vendetta against T. J. and other members of the swim team.


As the swim season comes to a close and it appears all the swimmers will receive a letter jacket, tension at school rises between coaches and athletes of the different sports.  As T. J. and his parents provide support for Heidi, her brothers and mother, tension rises at home.


Crutcher does an excellent job of delivering a powerful message of small-town prejudice and social issues.  He develops each of the characters so that the reader understands each of their struggles.


Both young men and women would enjoy this book.  It describes vividly the swimming and training events and one can sometimes feel the testosterone pumping through the male characters.  The females in the story display both strong and weak characteristics.


TOUCHY AREAS: The teacher should be aware that profanity is used and there is much reference to verbal and physical abuse.




REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

March 8, 2008

When Dad Killed Mom

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When Dad Killed Mom

Author: Julious Lester

Page Length: 199

Reading Level:


REVIEW & PLOT SUMMARY: The title says it all.  Jeremy and Jenna’s mom was shot by their dad. Mom is dead, dad is in jail and two kids are left to try and make some sort of life for themselves in the aftermath. This is a disturbing book as you would imagine. It is well written, but I didn’t enjoy it, much as I didn’t enjoy watching Schindler’s List. That is not to say there is not value and it wasn’t compelling, there is and it was, it is just not the kind of book you read for fun.


The newspaper headline reads “College Shrink Kills Wife.” The story is told from both Jeremy and Jenna’s point of view. They take turns narrating. The mom, who has already been killed when the book starts, tells her story through a diary the son finds. This is obviously a family in trouble but the actions of the father come as a shock to the children. Throughout the book several deep dark family secrets are revealed that shake-up the characters and the reader. We find out that Jenna and her dad don’t have an entirely wholesome father daughter relationship just for an example.


I had to read this book in short segments and follow-up with something lighter. I would have a hard time recommending it to just anyone although, given the title, I think the reader is fairly well prepared for some of the content and tone.




REVIEWED BY: Sherry Hall


February 17, 2008

When Willard Met Babe Ruth

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When Willard Met Babe Ruth

Author: Donald Hall

Illustrator: Barry Moser

Page Length: 42

Reading Level: 6th

Genre: Mix of Fiction / Non-fiction


PLOT SUMMARY: This book reminds me of the times I would tag along with my father to baseball games trying to get players to autograph my baseballs. It was not my favorite thing to do, but I did walk away with a lot of memorable experiences.


It’s hard to tell whether or not this picture book is based on real-life experiences or is purely fictional. The time period begins at 1917. The main character in this story is a 12 year old boy named Willard Babson. He spends his days helping his dad on a farm in rural New Hampshire and playing baseball during his free-time. One day a car slides into a ditch near Willard’s home. The “roadster” contains a man and a woman. Willard and his father recognize the man as Babe Ruth of the Boston Red Sox. Before Babe Ruth leaves Willard, after his car is rescued from the ditch, he hands the boy his own glove. Willard never forgets this. 


Part of the story is set during The Great Depression. And at a time when money is scarce, going to a baseball game is seen as a special occasion. Knowing that Willard loves baseball, his father and mother agree to take some money out of a “special jar” to pay for the cost. Willard and his father travel to Fenway Park to watch a “double-header” between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Browns. Between the two games, Willard and his father watch Babe Ruth warm-up. It is at this time that Babe Ruth recognizes Willard as the kid from New Hampshire. Willard reminds Babe that he gave him his glove. At that, Babe gives Willard a ball.


Excited from his venture out to Fenway Park, we see a poem from Willard on page 18, that captures his excitement. His poem is printed in the local paper, and Willard wins an award for his work. As time passes in the story, we see events in Willard’s life that are paralleled by events that are occurring in Babe Ruth’s life. Two lives of vast difference except for the love of baseball.


Elements of history are contained in this book as Willard grows older. Elections occur, wars cease, marriages happen, babies are born, and World Series are won/lost. As a man, Willard ends up working for the Transcript writing stories for the sports section. Willard and his wife conceive a daughter in which they name Ruthie (after Babe Ruth). One birthday, they surprise Ruthie with 3 tickets to Opening Day at the Braves Field. Ruthie’s trip to Boston for the first time, reminds Willard of his trip to see Babe Ruth. As Willard and Ruthie arrive at the stadium they are able to see the great ball player. Babe Ruth is surprised to see Willard after so long. He writes “Happy Birthday from Ruth to Ruth” on Ruthie’s scorecard. He also says that if he hits a ball today, it will be for her birthday.


REVIEW: This book is a simple story about the love of baseball, the admiration of a great player, and the beauty of life that many times finds itself making a “full-circle”. The story ends essentially where it began. The last page is a brief biography of Babe Ruth, the real-life ball player that is considered to be, by many, the greatest.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: Historical Context (baseball beginnings, Great Depression), Poetry, Sequence of Events




REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton


February 8, 2008

Wild Water: Floods

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Wild Water: Floods

Author: Tony Allan                                     

Page Length: 48

Reading Level: 5th



REVIEW: Funny enough when I picked up this book, I turned to the back and read that the author had worked with a language consultant in writing it. The language consultant has worked in the area of special education.


When I flipped through the pages briefly I noticed that this was no ordinary book. I would classify it more as a modified textbook. The subject is about the various forms of water activity – specifically flooding.


This book is loaded with not only information in paragraph form but side-notes, foot-notes, diagrams, photographs, quotations, questions, newspaper articles, checklists, and brief facts.


Some of the pictures of individuals in flood situations were quite shocking. Many of the photographs seemed to have been taken from either newspaper articles or newscasts. There was everything from a man biking up to his knees in water to a family of eight stranded on a raft in the middle of a flood. I liked the fact that book explained flooding using examples from many countries around the world and not just the United States. I learned that flooding is a major problem in many areas. I also learned that flooding takes many forms.


One criticism of this book is that it took a little while for me to get used to the format of all the information scattered about. There were all sorts of facts and terms hidden through out each page. This made it difficult to concentrate initially. However, as the interest level of the book became apparent to me, I finished it with out any trouble.


Students with attention-issues may enjoy this book because the paragraphs are not long and there are so many small pieces of information to jump to when you are tired of reading the standard paragraphs.


One other thing that I enjoyed about this book was the fact that it not only had a glossary and index, but that some of the words in bold throughout the book were defined for you at the bottom of many of the pages.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: This is a great book because it explains a familiar subject you learn in science class in a new way. I learned many things I did not know before. This book would be a great way to supplement the instruction going on in a science class – especially to a student who struggles with the regular science textbook.


BOOK CONNECTIONS: This book is one in a series of books about natural disasters (ie. Earth Erupts: Volcanoes, Shaky Ground: Earthquakes)




REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

January 13, 2008



Author: Alan Armstrong

Page Length: 191

Reading Level: 4th

Genre: Fiction / Historical Fiction


REVIEW & PLOT SUMMARY: Taking a look at the cover of this book, one may think that this is a simple story about a cat. However, this book contains three main stories.


The first story is about a cat, Whittington, and the simple adventures with his barnyard friends – such as Lady, the duck, Coraggio, the rooster, Havey, the dog, and Aramis, the race horse. In this book, the animals have dialogue with each other. Besides the animals who can understand one another, the grandchildren of the farmer, Bernie, can hear these creatures.   


This leads us to the second story-line. Bernie, the farmer, is one of those men who would take in any creature that others will not keep. He is a simple man with a tender heart. He has two grandchildren, Ben and Abby who attend school. Ben is a boy with a slight temper. He also struggles with reading. One could say his temper comes from the frustration with books. Whittington, the cat, makes note that he used to be the pet for a boy who struggled with reading too until the boy’s parents sent him off to a “special school”. Whittington was without love and support from then on.


The main character of the book is the cat, Whittington. To all the animals in the barn as well as Ben and Abby, he tells stories of the adventures of a boy named Dick Whittington. This leads us to the third story-line. These stories about Dick Whittington are told by Whittington the cat after Abby helps Ben with his reading lessons in the barn. Whittington, the cat, says that he got his name from Dick Whittington whose story has been handed down from one generation to another in his cat lineage. Whittington, the cat, says that Dick Whittington was English and lived a hundred years before Columbus. Dick Whittington had a cat that made him a fortune due to his rat-hunting abilities. Also, stories of spice trading and sea voyages flow from the cat’s mouth. Listening to the cat’s stories captivate all the animals as well as Ben who is learning to read better every day. Lessons with a Reading Recovery teacher during the summer also aid Ben in making sure he is not held back a grade.


TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: References to “Special Ed” and other labels such as on page 44 may raise a few eyebrows from the more conservative audience or immature student.


HELPFUL NOTE / AREAS FOR TEACHING: The ending of this book is very positive yet felt a little rushed. A lot of the information in the Endnotes is alluded to in the last few chapters. For those who like to skip to the end for a better reference of who Dick Whittington was, read the Endnotes on pages 187-191. This will give you a glimpse into the legend of the man upon which this story is loosely based. This book is part fact and part fiction. If you use the Endnotes along with this story, one might teach a good lesson about history and literature.




REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton


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