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December 19, 2010


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Back by Norah McClintock: Book Cover



Author: Norah McClintock


Page Length: 93


Reading Level: 3


Genre: Fiction


Career Connections: Policemen, Doctor

PLOT SUMMARY: How would you feel if a neighbor who had been jailed for beating your brother so badly that he was in a coma was released from prison and back living with his mother?  This is the situation Ardell Withrow is facing as Jojo Benn returns to the neighborhood. 

The story is told by a young boy who has a broken ankle and is doomed to wear a cast for the summer.  So, he has a good view from his front porch of the neighborhood activities. 

He first explains why Jojo was in jail.  It began when his girlfriend, Shana, became pregnant with his child.  Jojo had an attitude with people and when Shana wanted more attention than Jojo was willing to give, he got an “attitude” with her.  Eden, Ardell’s brother, witnessed this and came to her rescue.  This infuriated Jojo so much that he got a crowbar and beat Eden so badly that he went into a coma.  He has been in a hospital since the horrifying event.

When Jojo is released, the people of the neighborhood are leery of what his behavior will be.  The neighborhood stores refuse to sell him groceries.  He stays at home most of the time, except on the days when he and his mother leave in a taxi.  Shana comes to visit him and shows him their baby.  All of this is observed by the people in the neighborhood, including Ardell and his family.

Ardell and his mother go to visit Eden, but Ardell’s father refuses to visit him. One day his dad comes to the house and tells Ardell’s mother that the hospital has determined that Eden is brain-dead.  Eden is taken off of life support and dies. 

Many of the neighbors attend the funeral, but Shana doesn’t.  The tension increases with each of Shana’s visits to Jojo’s home.  Ardell confronts her and asks how she can forgive Jojo when it is his fault that Eden is dead. When Shana tells him that she didn’t ask for Eden’s help, this is more than Ardell can take.

REVIEW: This is a high interest level book written for the reluctant teen reader.  The story is told from an observer’s point of view, I think a student who has few friends or shy may be able to relate to the narrator. I would suggest the book to boys who are just beginning to do independent reading.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Drawing Conclusions, Making Predictions, Character, Conflict, Cause/Effect, and Compare/Contrast


RELATED BOOKS: Snitch, Tell, Bang, Down, Marked, and Watch Me


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

June 5, 2010

Hope Was Here

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Hope Was Here

Author: Joan Bauer

Page Length: 186

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Hope, formerly named Tulip, is moving from Brooklyn to Wisconsin with her aunt, Addie.  When Hope was just an infant her mother, a waitress, left her with her aunt, a cook. Hope is leaving her first job as a waitress and dreads moving to a new town with a new job and new school.

When Hope arrives with her aunt to their new diner, Welcome Stairways, she meets the owner, G. T. Scoops.  As Hope and Addie become acclimated to life in the small town, they meet Flo, Yuri, and Braverman, the other employees. 

As the story progresses, the town learns that G. T. has cancer and that is the reason he has asked Addie to come cook so that he can get some relief from his chemo treatments.  However, G. T. is not a quitter, and decides to run for mayor of the town to eliminate some of the corrupt business transactions that are currently being ignored.  Hope, Braverman, and a group of other teens back G. T. and help run his campaign.

As the book progresses, the campaign becomes more intense with unethical events happening to sabotage G. T.’s chances of winning.  Working together, both at the diner and for the campaign, Braverman and Hope develop a romantic relationship, as do Addie and G. T.

REVIEW: This is an excellent book that would be good to use as a class novel.  The basic theme is how Hope tries to spread hope through each person she touches in life.  However, there are several underlying themes, including:  the political campaign for mayor, dealing with the disease of cancer, parental abandonment, romance, and the developmental delays of a child.  The book is appealing to a wide range of age groups and both genders.  

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Characters, Setting, Theme, and Conclusions, Predictions, and Generalizations

RELATED BOOKS: Becoming Naomi Leon, The Center of Everything, My Time as Caz Hazard, Everything on a Waffle

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Hope Floats (1998), Frankie and Johnny (1991), About a Boy (2002), and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

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

City of the Beasts

City of the Beasts

Author: Isabel Allende

Page Length: 406

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Realistic Fiction     

PLOT SUMMARY: Alexander Cold is 15 years old when he finds himself being sent to New York City to go on an International Geographic expedition with his eccentric grandmother, Kate.  Although Alex dreads the trip, he must follow his parent’s wishes because his dad has to care for his mother as she undergoes treatment for cancer. Shortly after arriving in the depths of the Amazon territory, Alex becomes an active part of the expedition.

There are several colorful characters that belong to the group including a professor, a doctor, an entrepreneur, a missionary, a photographer, a writer (his grandmother), several soldiers and a guide.  The guide’s daughter, Nadia, is a young girl and she and Alex quickly become friends.

The goal of the expedition is to track down the Beast. He is believed to be over nine feet tall, very strong, and carries a very strong pungent odor. As the group moves through the heavy forest, an Indian tribe called the People of the Mist kidnaps Alex and Nadia. While with these invisible people, the two young people encounter some amazing adventures and experience some supernatural spiritual events.

Not only does a bond build between the two young people but also a bond is formed with the Indian tribe that allows Alex and Nadia to learn about their culture and values and the point of view of the primitive people towards the outside world.  When they are reunited with the other members of their party, they find that not all of the group can be trusted to befriend the People of the Mist.

REVIEW: When I began this book I did not think I was going to enjoy it.  The grandmother’s character is quite harsh and the setting of the Amazon did not entice my interest.  However, after just a few chapters, the characters of the book are developed and the adventure of being in the deep, unchartered land of primitive Indians began to captivate by interest.  As Alex and Nadia begin to spend time with the People of the Mist, they begin to experience supernatural powers, which seem unlikely but made believable by the author.  The search for the Beast, becomes an encounter with a prehistoric being that is similar to man but unchanged through evolution.

I think this would be an excellent class novel for both genders and any middle school to high school age student to read.   The mixture of fantasy and reality are captivating.  Student’s who like Harry Potter would enjoy this book.  I can invision this book being made into a movie.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Native Indians do not wear clothing, but there are only references to this as being a part of the culture. There is some graphic violence in the deaths of some of the characters (p. 354-356) but this also fits into the context of the story without being offensive.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Characters, Sequence of Events, Point of View, Fantasy vs. Reality

RELATED BOOKS: Kingdom of the Golden Dragon


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Brian’s Song

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Brian’s Song

Author: William Blinn

Page Length: 119

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Teleplay

PLOT SUMMARY: Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers were unlikely friends. After all, they came from very different backgrounds. For one of them being the best was easy; for the other, being second best was normal. One of them was outgoing while the other was reserved. One of them was black, and one of them was white. Despite their differences, they had one thing in common -they both wanted to be first string for the same position on the Chicago Bears pro football team. They challenged each other, they never gave up, and through it all – they never stopped giving life their best effort. 

REVIEW: I love this format. I used this before with my seventh grade classes, they really enjoyed reading it aloud. The movie caps the entire teleplay off beautifully (I think the newer version is better than the 1971 version). The story is moving in many ways and provides excellent discussion material about – courage, perseverance, strength, the true meaning of friendship, and how critical attitude is to success.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: connecting text to self, sequence of events, cause and effect, making predictions, elements of plot, varied writing formats (using the teleplay as a classroom writing activity)

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: reality of battling racism and cancer

RELATED BOOKS: Gayle Sayer’s I Am Third, Brian Piccolo: A Short Season, Story Sense, The Screenwriter’s Bible  

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Brian’s Song, Remember the Titans


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor


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Author: Virginia Hamilton

Page Length: 127

Reading Level: 2

Genre: fiction

PLOT SUMMARY & REVIEW:  This book was written with some journal entries by Dreenie, and the rest of the book was not in journal style but was all about three girls becoming new friends.  The girls are all in the same 5th grade class and get to know each other by extending their simple curiosity and pure enjoyment of shared time, activities, and personal time together.   However, one of the girls, Natalie – nicknamed “Bluish”, is quite different, because the chemotherapy she is given causes her veins to stick out giving her skin a “bluish” tint.  The two other girls, Dreenie and Tuli (Tulithia), have similar skin color.    Dreenie is chocolate brown, and Tuli is more medium golden.  Despite their skin differences and the fear of Bluish’s illness all three girls slowly become very good friends.

The book goes into several things that draw the students together.   There is their need to help and share; a small Puppy called Lucky; and the round skull caps that Bluish and her mother have made for the entire class.    Dreenie who is also fairly new in school enjoys becoming a good friend to Bluish and loves petting her puppy.   Tulithia, who only has a Grandmother at home, enjoys sharing things and playing with Bluish.   Then, there is Christmas time fun, gift “skull” hats for the entire class, and new class games for the Christmas and Jewish New Year’s seasons.   By the end of the story the reader, as am I, is convinced that the girls’ friendships have bonded and will continue to grow with each new experience. 

My opinion is that the book is excellent. It is a great book to use for a lesson on disabilities.


2.9 draw on experience for word meanings

2.10 learn the main ideas and details supporting it

2.11 connect compare the various ideas

2.12 analyze the characters

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES:  the only area that some children may not understand is on page 71.   It is a description of another meaning for the name Bluish.  It also means Black and Jewish when combined.  

RELATED BOOKS:   books also by Virginia Hamilton, Second Cousins, The House of Dies Drear, The People could Fly,   Zeely, Cousins, and McHiggins the Great.


REVIEWED BY: Linda Schwegler

November 3, 2008

It’s Not About a Bike

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It’s Not About the Bike

Author: Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins   

Page Length: 288

Reading Level: 8

Genre: Non-Fiction, Autobiography        

PLOT SUMMARY: Lance Armstrong tells of his life from childhood to winning his first and second Tour de France titles. Lance grew up in Plano, Texas, with his mother.  He writes of how he became a competitor in triathlons, which eventually drew him into cycling as a sport. On the brink of his career, he is diagnosed with testicular cancer.  He describes the fears of facing cancer and the treatments that follow.  After he is cancer free, he faces the decision whether to go back to the world of cycling competition or to hang out with his friends playing golf, eating Mexican food, and drinking beer and let his wife support him.

REVIEW: It’s Not About the Bike is a well-written book which unlike most autobiographies offers excellent descriptions of the landscape of France, the agony of cancer, the joy of love and parenthood.  Lance Armstrong vividly chronicles the challenges he faced living with a single-parent in prominent Plano, Texas.  He admits he was an angry young man and describes how surviving cancer helped him become more disciplined and appreciative of life.  He shares the joys of falling in love, the reality of being sterile, and the panic of seeing his wife suffering through childbirth.  Lance Armstrong does an excellent job of sharing his life as a world champion cyclist, a son, a husband, a father, a cancer survivor and a human being.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Some profanity

AREAS OF TEACHING: Descriptive writing, Sequence of Events

RELATED BOOKS: Brian’s Song, Every Second Counts, by Lance Armstrong

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Breaking Away (1979), 2 Seconds (1998), 20 Shades of Pink (1976), Brian’s Song

RELATED WEBSITES:’s_Not_About_the_Bike:_My_Journey_Back_to_Life,,…/armstrong_13766___article.html/cancer_lance.html

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

October 30, 2008

Inside Out

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Inside Out

Author: Terry Trueman

Page Length: 117

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction


PLOT SUMMARY: Zach isn’t your average high school guy. He suffers from Schizophrenia and is haunted by the voices inside his head. One day as he’s waiting for his mom to pick him up at a local store, a robbery takes place. The voices are beginning to talk inside Zach’s head, he’s past due for his medicine, and he’s in no shape to be a hostage. Will Zach get help before it’s too late or will the voices yelling “Die!” win out?


REVIEW: As if Schizophrenia by itself wasn’t bad enough, Zach running out of medication and being under the stress of a robbery only compounds the situation. The reader gets to feel what it’s like to be Zach. We can hear the voices, sense the tension, and feel how hard Zach has to fight for understanding and control. In that sense, the book is a beautiful tool for teaching others how it might feel to be in someone else’s shoes. On another note, the reason behind the robbery prompts much discussion in and of itself. Two teenage boys led to desperation by the need for money to care for their ailing mother end up in a horrible situation. Together they all learn from each other.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: description, imagery, word choice in writing, mood, tone, author’s purpose, sequence of events, cause and effect, internal conflict, external conflict


TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: quote – “he cocks the weapon and lifts it up, taking the muzzle into his mouth,” issue of suicide


RELATED BOOKS: Stuck in Neutral, Cruise Control, No Right Turn


RELATED MOVIES: “A Beautiful Mind” and “What About Bob”





REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

September 21, 2008

Every Second Counts

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Every Second Counts

Author: Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins

Page Length: 246

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Autobiography

PLOT SUMMARY: In the second of two books written by Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins, Lance tells of life after having cancer and becoming cancer free.  He shares the training routine he goes through to prepare for the Tour de France.  Then, he guides the reader through his second Tour de France race and the following victories. 

In addition to the training and competitive parts of his life, he tells how he had to come to terms with “life after cancer.”  He had to convince himself he was not going to die and start to live like he wasn’t going to die.  Lance faces issues with friends, competitors, his family and time with his children. He shares how with becoming a celebrity he had to learn how to find balance in his life. On page 57, he expresses how he believes suffering can be a good enhancer to life.

REVIEW: After reading two books by Lance Armstrong, I find that I view him as motivation and inspiration to those who have survived life-changing experiences.  He demonstrates how to fight back and overcome obstacles.  Although I found this book to be inspirational (p. 210-213) and challenging, it was somewhat offensive to me, in the harsh language he uses.

This is a good book to read for cancer victims or those affected by cancer.  Boys would enjoy this more than girls. 

 AREAS FOR TEACHING: Sequence of Events, Cause and Effect

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Rough language quoted by the author

RELATED BOOKS: It’s Not About the Bike, Lance Armstrong: We’re One Man’s Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal and a Few Other Rivals on the Road, Lance Armstrong: The Race of His Life, On The Bike With Lance Armstrong, Lance Armstrong, Learning About Resilience from the Life of Lance Armstrong

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: “Breaking Away” (1979), “2 Seconds” (1998), “20 Shades of Pink” (1976)

RELATED WEBSITES:…/every_second_counts_by_lance_armstrong.html

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

June 25, 2008

The Beast

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The Beast

Author: Walter Dean Myers

Page Length: 170

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Anthony “Spoon: Witherspoon is different than many of the kids in his Harlem neighborhood. He sees the chance for a brighter future. Spoon is offered a chance to attend an elite New England Prep School. Although he’s torn between leaving his home and exploring new possibilities, he know this is a once in a lifetime chance. After four months away, Anthony returns to find that home isn’t the same as it was when he left. His girlfriend, Gabi, has changed. Something dark and elusive haunts her. Spoon spots Gabi’s brother out on the streets. Illness plagues Anthony’s own family. Just when his world seems to be crumbling, Anthony has to find the strength to keep it all together. Can he keep his eyes on the future and still help the ones he loves? Or will Harlem life swallow them all and take their dreams away?

REVIEW: Myers writes a moving story about the struggles of a young man in Harlem. Anthony has gone away to an exclusive school and sees that there is a better life outside of Harlem. He’s still tied to his past and his love for Gabi. Gabi has turned to drugs because her dreams keep slipping farther away. Her mother is dying, her ailing grandfather is in her care, her little brother has turned to the streets and dealing, and her boyfriend is out of reach. Anthony slowly realizes Gabi’s addiction and works to help her. When she hasn’t returned for days, he visits the drug house and brings her home. Although this book dealt with the realities of drug use and the reasons why people turn to them, I do not feel that Myers adequately addresses the problem. Realistically, Anthony’s chances of bringing Gabi out of the drug house all on his own would be slim. I feel like the adults in the story should have been included in saving Gabi. At the same time, Anthony is fantasizing over his attraction to Chanelle.

The harsh realities of what drugs can do to a life are detailed well. On the other hand, the plot seems a little shallow. I would like to have seen more depth and intervention. Gabi’s love of poetry would lead to an interesting classroom discussion of poetry (its emotions and feelings). Overall, the book is appealing because of the love between the two characters and the hardships they endure. It is also valuable as a tool for teaching survival and overcoming harsh circumstances.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: context clues, figurative language, theme, setting, conclusions, predictions, climax, resolution, mood, tone

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: drug use – pg. 161 “a needle still in his arm,” pg. 120 “skin surfacing, smoking…”

RELATED BOOKS: Slam!, Fallen Angels, Go Ask Alice, Beauty Queen, My Brother’s Keeper, Hero Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich

RELATED MOVIES:  Little Fish, 28 Days, Permanent Midnight


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

April 2, 2008

The Tiger Rising

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The Tiger Rising

Author: Katie DiCamillo

Page Length: 121

Reading Level: 4


PLOT SUMMARY: The Tiger Rising is the story of twelve year old Rob Horton. After the recent death of Rob’s mother, he and his father have moved to a new town for financial reasons. Rob and his dad live in the Kentucky Star Hotel. Each day Rob waits for the bus and the bullying he receives at the hands of two boys on the way to school. But like everything else unpleasant in Rob’s life, he keeps his feelings of anger and resentment neatly locked away inside his “suitcase.” At school, Rob is treated poorly and sent home by the principal because several parents are concerned that that strange rash on his legs might be contagious. Rob is relieved to be away from school; yet, on his last day, he meets the new girl in town, Sistine.


Sistine isn’t like the other kids, and she hates it there. Her parents have recently split because dad started seeing his secretary, but Sistine is certain that he is going to come for her (or so she leads everyone to believe). Rob and Sistine unite in their misery and become friends. Before long, Rob reveals his secret. He has discovered a tiger hidden in the forest. He and Sistine go to see the tiger; Sistine insists that the tiger has to be set free. Under the wise counsel of Willie May, Rob and Sistine begin to come to terms with the realities of their disappointments. Rob begins to talk to Sistine and share his grief. He and his father start to grow closer. Rob’s given the keys to the cage so that he can start feeding the tiger. With the keys to the tiger’s freedom in their grasp, Rob and Sistine are faced with a choice. Do they set the tiger free, and if they do what will happen? 


REVIEW: There is nothing objectionable or questionable in this book. I think it is a great story with universal appeal. It deals well with grief, the importance of friendship, parental relationships, and learning to talk through hard times exceptionally well.




REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor


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