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


August 30, 2009



Author: Laurie Halse Anderson

Page Length: 233

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Kate Malone is nervously awaiting her acceptance letter to MIT, the only college she applied to as a senior honor student.  Her deceased mother went to MIT and that is the only school she has ever wanted to attend.  As Kate watches her friends being accepted to not only their first choice schools, but their second and third choices, she begins to be unable to sleep. An avid runner, she chooses to run at night to avoid the inevitable nightmare that will occur if she does not get the positive letter from MIT.

In Kate’s everyday life, she is an honor student and a track star. She handles all of the domestic duties at her home over her sickly brother, Toby,  and her  father who is a minister.  Her neighbor, Terri Litch, who has always been an enemy, continues to send bad vibes to Kate in the school cafeteria.

When the Litch’s house catches on fire, and Ms. Litch is unable to care for Terri and her brother, Mr. Malone has them move in with Kate, Toby, and him.  Now, Kate, has new responsibilities—Terri and Mikey. 

As Kate moves through the everyday motions of school, a romantic relationship, and church volunteer obligations, with no sleep, she finds she has a growing attachment for Mikey and a concern building for Terri, the arch enemy. A series of events follow that impact not only the Litch’s and Malone’s, but the entire community.  Relationships and personal values and morals are exposed and questioned as the town deals with tragedy.

REVIEW: This is an excellent book for the mature, advanced high school student to read.  I think girls would especially like it, as it is dramatic in content.  The events of the story, while tragic, are common in our society today.  Ms. Anderson does an excellent job of developing the characters through Kate’s eyes and the world through her point of view. It is one of the best young adult books I have read.   

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Theme, Character, Point of View, Conflict,

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: reference to masturbation (p. 14), incest, occasional profanity

RELATED BOOKS: Speak, The Center of Everything, Prom


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

A Hope in the Unseen

A Hope in the Unseen

Author: Ron Suskind

Page Length: 390

Reading Level: 9

Genre: Biography   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 6, 2008

True Believer

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True Believer

Author: Virginia Euwer Wolff

Page Length: 264

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: LaVaughn is 15. Despite the fact that she lives in poor neighborhood filled with violence, LaVaughn longs to go to college. LaVaughn begins to dream about life after high school. She sees how her friend, Jolly, suffers to make ends meet, take care of her two young fatherless children, and try to earn her credits to graduate. LaVaughn knows that she must find a way to a better life. Her friends have turned to a new interests, and Jody, a boy that used to be a close friend, has moved back to town. LaVaughn’s heart races every time she’s never him or even smells his wonderful chlorine scent left behind in the elevator. Life doesn’t always turn out the way LaVaughn expects. Can she keep her friends and find true love before her sixteenth birthday arrives?

REVIEW: Although this book lists as a reading level of 7, it has the potential to appeal to a lower reading level because of the short , easy to navigate and understand chapters. The only qualifier for a level 7 to me it seems are the large science vocabulary words LaVaughn shares with the reader as she learns them. The book has an excellent message about education and expectations and the discord that can arise between friends and family members who aren’t comfortable with the new developments sometimes perceived as “snootiness” in the person who is changing for the better. The book details friends who were lost to violence and a school shooting. LaVaughn walks in on two males kissing; the readers experience her shock and reaction.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: cause and effect, character sketch, technical vocabulary, conclusions and predictions, setting, theme, characters

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: violence, homosexuality, death of a parent, death of a classmate

RELATED BOOKS: Probably Still Nick Swanson, The Mozart Season, Make Lemonade


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

April 2, 2008


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Author: Laurie Halse Anderson

Pages: 215

Reading Level: 6


PLOT SUMMARY & REVIEW: Ashley Hannigan isn’t the typical high school senior. She’s got a deadbeat boyfriend (TJ) who dropped out of high school, never seems to have money, and is making plans for Ashley to move in with him after graduation. Ashley is from a family of four with one on the way; money is tight and her college plans almost non-existent. After serving detentions and rapidly finishing homework assignments she forgot from the night before, Ashley spends her time in a rat costume serving pizza and entertaining at the EZ-CHEEZ-E to earn money. While her best friend, Natalia (Nat) and the rest of the senior class seems obsessed with the Prom, Ashley could care less about some stupid “dance.”


The math teacher is arrested for stealing the prom funds. The school is up in arms. Will the prom be cancelled? Nat heads the prom committee and begs Ashley to help; before long, Ashley becomes caught up in the prom madness too. Nat breaks her leg and Ashley is left to keep plans moving for the prom. In between helping Nat, balancing family life, work, TJ, detention, school work, and Nat’s crazy grandma, Ashley finds a way to handle it all. Will she be able to salvage her high school prom? Will her feelings about prom change? Is life with TJ after high school enough for Ashley?  What will Ashley learn about herself in the process and how will it change her?


From a teaching perspective this book’s great points are that Ashley learns to want more from life than just the boyfriend and no education. She develops dreams and self confidence when she learns that she is more capable than she ever thought. She also learns to expect more for herself and from herself (evident when she gets rid of the less than desirable boyfriend and her friends applaud her finally realizing it). It’s also written on the high interest topic of Prom which usually appeals too much of the high school teenage girl population.


TOUCHY AREAS: A caution for the book is that drug use is mentioned (the boyfriend asks her to go with him and get high). Sex is mentioned in the book related to prom night activities and to Ashley and her boyfriend. Condoms are distributed at the prom. Ashley gets arrested for defying the vice principal and sneaking into the prom. There are plenty of issues here; yet, the overall message is a good one – especially for building strong women and for teaching girls to look outside the norm and believe in themselves.




REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor


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