The Book Reviews – Website

January 1, 2011

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


December 19, 2010

The Brimstone Journals

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The Brimstone Journals by Ron Koertge: Book Cover

The Brimstone Journals

Author: Ron Koertge

Page Length: 113

Reading Level: 6.6

Genre: Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

Talk of pipe bombs, guns, and other explosive materials

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


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

Romiette and Julio

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Romiette and Julio by Sharon M. Draper: Book Cover

Romiette and Julio

Author: Sharon Draper

Page Length: 320

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Julio has just moved to Cincinnati from his home town of Corpus Christi to get away from gangs and so that his father could find work. The Devildogs run things at Julio’s new school and let him know right away that they don’t want him in their school. Then Julio meets Romiette and his luck changes. He’s finally met a girl that he loves talking to. However, the Devildogs don’t want Romiette talking to Julio and their threats are increasing. Can Julio and Romiette make a relationship work amid so much chaos? Why does Romiette keep having a nightmare about drowning and what could it mean?

REVIEW: To all the Draper fans, I apologize but I did not enjoy reading this book. I feel that her use of dialogue is excessive and totally weighs the book down. The idea of modernizing Romeo and Juliette is a good one, however the delivery was poor. Reading becomes labored because it’s too much “blah, blah, blah” between the characters (exactly what most English teachers tell their students to avoid when writing their own stories). I feel that like most Draper books this story really doesn’t deliver a solid storyline – it seems to stay too superficial and never really goes deep enough to drive the point home. On a positive note, Draper does try to address the issue of gang violence and its dire consequences.

I was disappointed and I would not want to read this as a class novel.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: character traits, elements of plot, comparing and contrasting the characters, comparing text to self, point of view, how not to use dialogue

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: gang intimidation, kidnapping, gang violence

RELATED BOOKS: The Battle of Jericho, Just Another Hero, November Blues, Fire from the Rock, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliette”


“Romeo and Juliette” (1968 and 1996)

RELATED WEBSITES:                    

REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor


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Responsible by Darlene Ryan: Book Cover


Author: Darlene Ryan

Page Length: 100

Reading Level: 3.2

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Kevin is the new kid again in his fourth high school. His new “friends” are the school bullies led by Nick. Nick has perfected the art of accidentally shoving and tripping others. One day Nick chooses the wrong girl to mess with. Erin’s fed up with Nick’s bullying and she isn’t backing down. Nick’s anger grows as he decides that Erin must pay. Kevin becomes involved in Nick’s plot to get revenge and as Nick’s attacks on Erin grow more vicious Kevin is caught in the middle. Does Kevin follow Nick’s lead and protect himself or does he help Erin before it’s too late?

REVIEW: This is the typical Orca book. The sentences are short. The action happens quickly to keep students engaged and the problem is handled on the surface. Students should find the bullying issue and the feeling of being stuck in a difficult position relevant and interesting.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: sequence of events, cause and effect, internal conflict, external conflict, character traits, dialogue

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Topic of bullying, Language – “we’re not done pussy boy,” “get your ass out of my way”

RELATED BOOKS: Mirror Image, Pigboy, Daredevil Club, Saving Grace, Rules for Life

RELATED MOVIES: “Chicken Little,” “Ice Princess,” “Heavyweights”


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

August 30, 2009


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Author: Jan Cheripko

Page Length: 205

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Rat loves everything about basketball –except for the fact that he is disabled and feels that he can’t play the sport on the same level as his peers. He’s still a part of the team as the manager, but one day all of that changes. Rat witnesses something he wishes he hadn’t (or maybe he is glad that he could help – he really can’t decide). Coach has his hands all over one of the cheerleaders. Rat’s the only witness and he becomes caught in the crossfire. Will he tell the truth? Will the team treat him any differently if he “rats” on the coach? How far is he willing to go for a friend?

REVIEW: This book really packs in quite a few moral lessons and dilemmas. Rat is turned against by the basketball team because he tells the truth. No one will talk to him, he’s bullied and threatened, and he can’t even get his dad to see him for who he is. The new coach changes how Rat feels about himself and his relationships. We’re introduced to not only bullying, the cold hard truth about how doing what is right is not always popular, and two characters suffer with the loss of their loved ones to cancer. The new coach of the team not only teaches the boys great plays but also teaches them the elements of successful character traits (a lesson in and of themselves). Altogether it is a nicely crafted story that should appeal to both male and female students. There are great lessons in this book and wonderful vivid discussion points about decisions, actions, and repercussions – and about believing in yourself and standing up for what you believe in. Cheripko also teaches students that everyone has heart and everyone makes mistakes – great classroom read!

AREAS FOR TEACHING: huge potential – connecting text to self, sensory images, elements of plot, cause and effect, sequence of events

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: death from cancer, bullying, intimidation, sexual harassment

RELATED BOOKS: Imitate the Tiger, Brother Bartholomew and the Apple Grove, Voices of the River


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

Private Peaceful

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Private Peaceful

Author: Michael Morpurgo

Page Length: 202

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Charlie and Thomas Peaceful are brothers growing up in a rural setting living in the house the Colonel so graciously provided for the family in exchange for their father’s work. A tragic accident occurs for which Charlie feels responsible and the circumstances of the family change. Yet, Charlie and Thomas still enjoy an adventurous childhood. War has begun and Thomas is made to enlist. Charlie won’t be left behind and the two brothers embark upon the horrific and devastating journey across the seas as they serve their country in World War I. Can they make it back home alive? Will they ever see their brother, mother, or their precious Molly again?

REVIEW: Morpurgo delivers another excellent war story with such depth of characters, motives, and emotions that teachers have a wide range of discussion points and readers have many opportunities for connecting to the text. This book would make a great classroom novel. The novel isn’t just about the war. It details the childhood of the two young brothers including their protection of their mentally challenged brother, their love of the same girl, and their escapades to keep the family fed and survive their “loveless” grandmother. It’s a beautifully told story of sacrifice and tragedy.  

AREAS FOR TEACHING: comparing text to self, compare and contrast, sequence of events, setting, conflict, resolution, historical connections, theme

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: young woman becomes pregnant out of wedlock, thieving to feed the family, war deaths

RELATED BOOKS: Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea, Dolphin Boy, Why the Whales Came, Kensuke’s Kingdom, My Friend Walter


Private Peaceful – theater production


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

Home of the Braves

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Home of the Braves

Author: David Klass

Page Length: 355

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Joe Brickman is a senior and the captain of the less than stellar Lawndale soccer team. But, he’s hoping for a transformation this year on the soccer field and in his friendship with Kristine. Suddenly, the school social structure is in an uproar. The new student, who looks like an ad for a modeling magazine, is a Brazilian soccer player who becomes known as the “phenom.” Soccer becomes the in sport at school and the football players have issues. Violence breaks out and the soccer stars are threatened by the football team. Ed McBean has been marked and he refuses to bow. When some members of the team take matters to far, Ed’s life is in danger. Ed is tired of being the victim; he becomes angry and withdraws. Joe’s afraid that all out war or a violent outbreak at school is brewing. Can he stand tall and stop it all before it gets out of hand, or is he stuck with the cycle of violence that existed when his own father was in high school?

REVIEW: This is another good book about the dangers of bullying. The fear of violence and the damage done to the people involved is well presented. Students will be able to identify with and analyze the actions of the characters. Joe is an excellent character to study – he doesn’t let his father define him, he overcomes the past cycle of violence, and he isn’t afraid to stand up for his friend. The book also presents interesting points for discussion about how the administration at Joe’s school handled the hazing and violent incidents – whether or not that was effective and what could be done differently or more effectively. 

Joe also develops from a character with substandard academic performance to one who finally does apply for college and who finds a program that builds on his strengths. 

AREAS FOR TEACHING: cause and effect, sequence of events, question the test, compare and contrast text to self and world, character analysis, bubble map – descriptive adjectives

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: student is wrapped completely in athletic tape and stuff in a dark equipment closet (222-223), fighting, brawl at the community meeting, degrading and inciting remarks made by bullies

RELATED BOOKS: You Don’t Know Me, Dark Angel, You Don’t Know Me, Buddha Boy, Crash

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Mighty Ducks, Heathers, Chicken Little, Ice Princess, Sky High


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

Buddha Boy

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Buddha Boy

Author: Kathe Koja

Page Length: 117

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Michael, also known as Jinsen, is the new kid in school. Only this new kid couldn’t stand out more in a rich school full of super jocks. Jinsen wears a big baggy peeling dragon shirt, shaves his head, and walks from table to table begging at lunch like a monk. Before long, he’s given the name Buddha Boy. He’s constantly picked on and ridiculed – hanging out with him is like committing social suicide. But Justin’s drawn to Jinsen’s outlook on life and his extreme talent an artist. The two become friends and Justin begins to discover Jinsen’s secret past. Bullies are constant looming, seeking to destroy Jinsen’s work and disrupt his indifference to their torture. Can Jinsen and Justin break the cycle of bullying before it is too late?

REVIEW: This is a wonderful book. The story relates some Buddhist principles about how everyone is like a God inside. Jinsen reveals his violent past and discusses why now he turns the other cheek – and how he too was once violent because he liked the way it made him feel.

I would highly recommend this book as a classroom read. It’s a wonderful opportunity to discuss bullying and the necessity for tolerating and understanding differences. It’s short – could be covered in a week or two in class – and carries an awesome message. The reader feels the pain and humiliation of Jinsen; we also share Justin’s rage and internal conflict at what he should do to aid his friend is also well expressed – the reader can feel the conflict within themselves and sense the gravity of the situation.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: cause and effect, author’s purpose, comparing and contrasting, character traits, conflict, and resolution

Full cast audio version is available

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: bullying and threat

RELATED BOOKS: Straydog, Exposure, Hit Squad, Crash, The Battle of Jericho


Metropolitan Museum of Art


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

September 21, 2008


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Author: Carl Hiaasen

Page Length: 292

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction        

PLOT SUMMARY: Roy Eberhardt is a middle-school student who has just moved from Montana to Florida.  He rides the bus to school each day, and sits alone.  He is the latest victim of the school bully, Dana Matherson.  One day, when Dana is in the middle of attacking Roy, Roy spies a boy running very fast with no backpack or shoes.  This intrigues Roy, because he knows the boy is not headed for school.  Roy discovers that the running boy is Mullet Fingers and has a sister, Beatrice. Mullet is on a mission and Roy gets involved with some of his antics.

Meanwhile, there have been several incidents of petty crime occurring on the lot of the site for the new “Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House.”  As an officer and security guard try to protect the lot, Roy and Mullet find a way to get revenge on Dana while also protecting the environment.

REVIEW: This is a story of mystery and adventure involving some rather weird characters. Those who enjoyed Holes would like this book. It has a good message concerning the endangerment of burrowing owls. Boys would probably like the book more than girls.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Character, Conflict (Environmental vs. Business Development)

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Mild violence, some cursing

RELATED BOOKS: Flush, Naomi’s Geese, California Blue, The Fledglings, The Silent Spillbills, The Maze



REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

July 1, 2008

The Other Side of Truth

The Other Side of Truth

Author: Beverley Naidoo

Page Length: 252

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Twelve year-old Sade and her brother Femi are living in Nigeria during times of political unrest. Their father writes about freedom from oppression in his at times underground newspaper. One morning their lives take an awful turn when a militant group fires upon their home. Desperate to save the children, they are secretly spirited out of the country to England. Refugees on the run; the children arrive only to discover that their uncle is nowhere to be found. With no one to turn to the children must fend for themselves on the streets of London. Will they ever be reunited with their family?

Placed in foster care, Sade finds that she too must fight battles. She is bullied and threatened. With no one to turn to and the whereabouts of her family unknown, Sade must face these trials alone. Will she find the courage and strength to endure the hardships that will follow? Can she save herself and her father before it is too late?

REVIEW: This novel was really interesting to read. I’ve seen movies about political violence in third world countries but never read about it really. The horrors these children face when their mother is gunned down and their father falsely imprisoned are unthinkable.

I like how Naidoo interwove Sade’s own conflict with oppression so that both father and daughter are fighting for truth and justice. This book is action packed. Many questions are left unanswered until the end which is a great hook for reluctant readers (and works well for making predictions and questioning with students). This book is an interesting read and a look at political issues that are often glossed over in history textbooks. Through it all, the children survive and learn to overcome the atrocities they have witnessed. I would recommend this book for its perspective, eye-opening value, and the lessons that it teaches. 

AREAS FOR TEACHING: author’s purpose, conclusions, generalizations, predictions, compare/contrast, sequence of events, symbolism, summarization, theme, setting, characters

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Beginning of the novel – shooting, death threats, conditions of people in prison

RELATED BOOKS: Purple Hibiscus, Things Fall Apart, Graceland, A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

April 30, 2008

My Time as Caz Hazard

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My Time as Caz Hazard

Author: Tanya Lloyd Kyi

Page Length: 103

Reading Level: 3.2

Genre: Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Caz Hallard is a 10th grader with a less than stellar academic career and a discipline file that includes punching her former boyfriend. Caz is diagnosed with dyslexia (something her parents have trouble believing) and sent to a new school where she is placed in a special reading class to help her. On her first day of school, she meets Mr. Popular who approaches only to recoil when he realizes she is headed to the “special” class. Caz’s special education classroom contains a variety of students. Dodie is shy, less than fashionably dressed, and an easy target. Amanda, a foster child who has been in many homes, has a knack for trouble and soon pulls Caz into a world of skipping school and breaking laws. Caz’s parents are separating, her best friend won’t speak to her anymore, and Dodie has committed suicide. Is she responsible for Dodie’s death and can she save herself before she loses everything? 

REVIEW: This book is typical of the Orca book series. It is written in simple language, on a high interest topic, and the action proceeds quickly. However, the book seems to lack depth. Many of the issues are never fully addressed or developed. I personally find the messages in it disturbing – enough attention wasn’t given to the bullying that led to the suicide. Caz doesn’t pay serious repercussions for her shoplifting habit, and Amanda gets in with the in crowd by “putting out.” While I think these books take a Jerry Springer approach to an interest in “trashy” subjects, I am not sure they are strong enough morally to be worthwhile reads.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: causes and effects (inferred) beyond what the author presents, use of dialogue, examining stereo-types

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: most pages – suicide, sex, shoplifting, bullying, skipping school …

RELATED BOOKS: Orca series, The Shoplifting Game, Klepto

RELATED MOVIES: “CBS Afternoon Playhouse”, Portrait of a Teenage Shoplifter (1981), Rats and Bullies (bullying leads to suicide), Mean Girls


RELATED WEBSITES: (downloadable MP3 file of the first chapter)

REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

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