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January 1, 2011

Monsoon Summer

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Monsoon Summer

Author: Mitali Perkins

Page Length: 257


Reading Level: 5


Genre: Fiction         

PLOT SUMMARY: Jazz Gardner has to tell her business partner, Steve Morales, (best friend and secret love of her life) that she will be traveling to India with her family for the summer.  Her mother has received a grant for the orphanage in which she was adopted from several years earlier.  Having no choice, Jazz tells Steve good-bye, with sadness that he will find a girlfriend while she is gone. 

Upon arriving in India, Jazz decides to attend the local school rather than work at the orphanage.  However, her brother gets involved with the orphans by coaching them soccer, and her dad, a loner, becomes obsessed with teaching the nuns who run the orphanage computer skills.  Meanwhile, her mother is fulfilling her dream of making the orphanage a safe-haven for pregnant women of India to come and receive medical services.

Steve writes her letters, but Jazz cannot find the words to respond to him.  She pens many letters, but hides them away.  When Danita, one of the girls at the orphanage, starts to cook and clean for the Gardner’s, Jazz opens up to her and tells her how she feels about Steve. 

Jazz meets girls at the school who try to get her involved by attending dances after school.  Jazz has only danced once (with Steve at the eighth grade dance) and she was a complete klutz.  Jazz feels she is too large and clumsy to be attractive, not petite like her mom.  She eventually starts to take ceremonial dance from Danita for a performance they will give at the opening of the orphanage.

As Jazz observes her family at the orphanage, learns of Danita’s destiny of being an orphan, and raffles through her relationship with Steve, she realizes that there is a gift in giving and opens her heart to touch others. 

REVIEW: This is an excellent coming of age book for junior high and high school girls to read.  Jazz lacks confidence, specifically because her mother exemplifies a super-woman.  She is cautious in giving of herself after being taken advantage of by a druggie, earlier in the year. As Jazz observes the poverty in India, she realizes she has much to be grateful for and understands her mother’s mission to help the people of her home country. Through her relationships with Danita and her girlfriends she makes at the school, Jazz gains the confidence she needs to tell Steve her feelings and make good mature decisions about her life.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Setting, Characters, Compare/Contrast, and Point of View

RELATED BOOKS: The Kite Runner, Born Confused

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner


September 28, 2009

Harley Like a Person

Harley Like a Person

Author: Cat Bauer

Page Length: 282  

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Harley believes that she is adopted.  All of her family has blue eyes, Harley’s are brown.  Her mom told her she lost her birth certificate after she was born.  She does not relate to her alcoholic father and her bitter mother.  It seems they are always nagging her to clean her room, dust, do the dishes, and never notice her good grades or the way she helps with her younger sister. While Harley stumbles through her ninth grade year in school, she continues to research clues in finding out who her true parents are.

Harley does not deal with the conflicts in a rational way.  She hides under her bed, locks herself in her room, and refuses to talk to her parents when they make her angry.  However, she does find comfort in writing poetry, painting, and playing her oboe.  Harley not only has difficulties at home, but begins to show anger and jealousy towards her best friend.  After being treated badly by one boy she finds herself in a relationship with a fast talking, drug dealer.  Her grades begin to fall, although she is ask to complete a special art project for the school play.  Harley finds herself experimenting with drugs, alcohol, and sex although she knows she is making bad decisions.

She continues her quest to find her true identity but hits many hurdles on the road before finding answers to the many family questions that plague her.

REVIEW:  Harley Like a Person is a fast read with lots of drama.  Harley encounters emotional issues that cause her to question her parent’s honesty and morals and make bad moral decisions for herself. 

This book would be enjoyed by girls who face the many conflicts and issues of teens growing up in today’s world.  Unlike many books, the main character makes bad choices then is forced to answer to her parents and teachers.  In the end, Harley’s questions are answered but not before she suffers some bad experiences with her family, boyfriend, and best friend.

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

TOUCHY AREAS: marijuana use- (p.172-175, 212- 216), alcohol use (212-216), and sexual situations (p. 176, 217)

RELATED BOOKS: Harley’s Ninth


 REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 30, 2009

Hanging on to Max

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Hanging on to Max

Author: Margaret Bechard

Page Length: 204

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Sam is a 17 year old senior in high school who lives with his widowed father and son, Max. When Max’s mother decided having a son as a teen ager was too much for her to handle, Sam, got custody of their infant son.  Sam is now attending an alternative school for teen parents.   Overwhelmed by homework, grocery shopping, playtime with an eleven month old, diapers, and doctor’s appointments, Sam sees a job in construction as his future.

Sam is gifted in math skills and his teacher encourages him to take the SAT just to see how he does.  Sam forms a study group with two of the other teen parents.  Claire, who he has had a crush on since junior high, is one of the members of his study group.  As their friendship grows they develop a romantic attraction. One day they attend a party of some of their old house school friends, taking both of their children.  While Sam is not neglectful, Max gets injured at the party and is rushed to the hospital. 

Sam has a love for Max, but finds the responsibilities of teen parenting more than he can handle.

REVIEW:  This is a realistic view of the life a teen parent must live.  The story is told from Sam’s point of view. His experiences both at school and home are not sugar coated, as far as the responsibilities he has.  The book would be excellent for any junior high or high school student to read, so that they may think twice before participating in unprotected premarital sex. 

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Cause/Effect, Sequence of Events, Character, Point of View, and Conflict

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: The theme of the book is based on the birth of an illegitimate child.   

RELATED BOOKS: The First Part Last, The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom, A Family Gathering, Girl Talk



REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 24, 2008

One True Friend

One True Friend

Author: Joyce Hansen

Page Length: 154

Reading Level: 6

Genre:  Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: This is the story of a friendship between Amir and Doris who met while Amir was living in a foster home on 163rd street in the Bronx. Amir’s parents were killed in a car wreck and he was separated from his siblings who were put into foster care.  As the story evolves, Amir is living with his youngest brother, Ronald and his foster parent’s, Alvin and Grace Smith. Amir is on a mission to find his aunt, who he believes has his other sibling’s living with them.  He has a letter and picture he wants to send to all of the people who have the same last name as his aunt to try to find them.  However, Mr. Smith forbids Amir to send the letters and says that he will help find his aunt.

Amir feels alone and writes Doris about his life in Syracuse, the Smith’s, and Ronald.  Doris writes back about issues she is having with her schoolmates and family.  Both Amir and Doris, give each other advice and support through their mail. They both feel disconnected from the world they live in and hold on to the distant friendship to solve their problems.

REVIEW: This book starts off slow, but gets better as the relationship between Doris and Amir develops through the letters they write.  The issues that the two teens face are realistic as to what many teens fact today.  A meaningful relationship also develops between the Smith’s and Amir that makes Amir realize what blood family and chosen family can both be a part of one’s life.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Main Idea and Supporting Details, Conflict, Cause/Effect, Compare/Contrast, Setting and Characters

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: References to marijuana use and AIDS, but nothing that is not age appropriate.

RELATED BOOKS: The Gift Giver, Yellow Bird and Me


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 6, 2008



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

Anne of Green Gables

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Anne of Green Gables

Author: L. M. Montgomery

Page Length: 373  

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY:  The story begins in Avonlea, Canada with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, siblings, contemplating the adoption of a young boy from an orphan asylum.  The couple is aging and feels it would be nice to have a young lad to assist them on their farm, Green Gables.  They decide to adopt; and, Matthew takes the horse and buggy into town to pick up their “new son.”

He is surprised to find a young eleven year old girl who talks incessantly all the way to Green Gables.  Although Matthew wanted a boy, he is pleasantly taken with Anne Shirley and her bubbly personality.  Marilla is hesitant, but decides she will keep Anne and help her with schooling and her social skills.

Marilla has a stern personality. She is quite challenged to teach Marilla appropriate social skills, beginning with the appropriate way to pray.  The story covers Marilla’s adventures throughout the community and school.

 Marilla meets a friend down the road who she adores.  The two girls are quite close until Marilla invites Diana to “tea” and unknowingly gets her drunk.  This is just the first of many of Anne’s adventures.

REVIEW:  As the story began, like Marilla, I found Anne’s never-ending dialogue irritating.  However, as the story progresses, I became attached and entertained by Anne’s antics. 

Montgomery goes into great detail and description throughout the book.  If not reading the entire book, it could be used for teaching examples of descriptive writing. (p. 9, 137, 227, 236-237, 273)

Girls would enjoy the book more than boys, but it could easily be used as a class novel.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Setting, Cause and Effect, Compare and Contrast, Character, Predictions, Conclusions and Generalizations, Figurative Language, Descriptions in Writing

RELATED BOOKS: Sequels to the book which cover Anne’s life to an older woman are:  Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplar, Anne’s House of Dreams, Anne of Ingleside, Anne of Rainbow Valley, Rilla of Ingleside

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS:  Anne of Green Gables (1985, mini-series), Anne of Green Gables: The Continued Story (1987), Anne of Green Gables (The Animated Series, 2000)



REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

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