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December 19, 2010

The House on Mango Street

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The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: Audio Book Cover

The House on Mango Street

Author: Sandra Cisneros

Page Length: 110

Reading Level: 6-12

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY & REVIEW: The House on Mango Street is a coming-of-age story told in short segments, vignettes, by the main character – Esperanza. She is a young, Hispanic girl who dreams of emerging from her current life of poverty to a life of independence. Esperanza desires to be set free like a bird in captivity.

Esperanza grows up amongst numerous family members and neighbors. Early in her life she travels from one “living situation” to another. When Esperanza’s family settles into their very own home on Mango Street, Esperanza realizes that this is not the home which their family has wished for. Never-the-less, Esperanza makes a life for herself in this new community. During her stay on Mango Street, Esperanza comes in contact (either directly or indirectly) with examples of racism, sexual harassment in the workplace, theft, education at a Catholic school, and physical abuse.

These experiences only add fuel to Esperanza’s fire to continue her storytelling and prepare for her eventual departure away from Mango Street.

This story seems almost as if it were written by Esperanza when she is older, reflecting back on her life as a child. Some background information on Hispanic culture and vocabulary would be helpful to students. The book is a wonderful read and should not be experienced in one sitting. Each of Cisneros’ short chapters is a gem in and of themselves. The vignettes spark interesting questions and analysis while standing alone on their own merit.

As much as Esperanza does not “love” her home life, I believe she truly does have a fond place in her heart for Mango Street. “Her story” is testament to this. I recommend this book to everyone!

AREAS FOR TEACHING: imagery, metaphor, setting, simile, characterization, poetry, symbolism

RELATED BOOKS: The Color Purple

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: “Mi Familia” (1995)


REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

August 8, 2009

A Step from Heaven

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A Step from Heaven

Author: An Na        

Page Length: 160  

Reading Level: 5.5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Young Ju Parks moves with her parents from Korea to America when she is four years old.  She has heard stories of Mi Gook, the Korean name for America, and believes she is moving to heaven.  After a very long ride on an airplane, the Parks arrive.  However, what they encounter is not heaven.

First, the father, Apa, must find work.  Then, mother, Uhmma, has a new baby boy, Joon.  The family struggles to be like Americans, but there is not enough money to get ahead.  Eventually, both parents have two jobs, and still rent an apartment and drive a dated station wagon. The family struggles with the language barrier and adapting to the American culture.

As Young Ju does experience success at school, she witnesses her parent’s relationship crumble, her father turn to alcoholism and her brother skip school.  She is forbidden to associate with her best friend, Amanda, because she is a frivolous American girl.  As Young Ju matures into a high school student she strives to make good grades so that she can attend college.

REVIEW:  An Na writes her first novel from her own first memories of moving to American from Korea.  She uses Young Ju as the narrator and explains the story of a young Korean family whose dreams of a “good life” in America never develop.  The book is written in vignettes, and chronicles Young Ju’s life from the time she is four until she graduates from high school.

The characters are developed so that the reader feels empathy for each of them in their dire situations.  This book is an excellent book for the high school student who lives in a diverse community. It helps to understand the difficulties immigrants experience as they are moved into the American culture but attempt to maintain their own cultural heritage.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Setting, Point of View, Conflict, and Characters

TOUCHY AREAS: Domestic violence by the father to the mother and children

RELATED BOOKS: The House on Mango Street, Angela’s Ashes

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Ariring: The Korean-American Journey (2003)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

January 18, 2009

Coming to America

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Coming to America

Author: Bernard Wolf

Page Length: 45    

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Biography   

PLOT SUMMARY: Hassan Mahmond comes to America and works for eight years before he is able to have his family join him from Egypt.  After they arrive, the children (Amr, Dina, and Rowan) begin attending American schools.  As they learn the new cultures of America, they continue to practice their Islamic customs and beliefs in their home.  They attend the mosque and eat the traditional foods of their homelands. However, the family adapts to America and its land of opportunities by working hard, learning the English language, and adapting to the traditional celebrations of graduation and birthdays.

REVIEW: This is a short, easy to read book with lots of facts about a Muslim family and the challenges they face as they immigrate to America. The author gives a good background to the American reader about the culture and customs of the Islamic religion while describing the hardships the family must endure to live in a free America.  The photographs are colorful and capture the life of the Mahmond family.  Students who like to read non-fiction would enjoy this book.  It could be used as a supplement for a social studies lesson or learning about customs in different countries.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Increase Vocabulary Skills (baklava, halal, mosque, ka’bah, Qur’an), Compare/Contrast, Setting, Sequence of Events

RELATED BOOKS: The Kite Runner, Escape from Saigon, I Learned Geography, The Wall, New Kids in Town, Goodbye, Vietnam, Refuge Cove

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: The Kite Runner (2007)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

July 7, 2008

A Boy at War

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A Boy at War

Author: Harry Mazer

Page Length: 104

Reading Level: 8

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: This is the story of Adam who is the “military son” of a proud American family. Adam’s father, Navy Lt. Pelko, has been assigned to the USS Arizona that has been stationed in Pearl Harbor on the shores of Hawaii. Adam is not a stranger to moving from city to city, however he finds it difficult to fit-in to this Asian and Hawaiian culture. Adam does manage to befriend Davi, a Japanese boy in his school. After Adam’s father discovers this friendship, he tells his son that associating with the Japanese at this time is not wise. Lt. Pelko goes on to tell Adam that whatever his son does reflects back on the family. Family image, respect, and honor are important within the Pelko household. However, Adam disobeys his father and continues to socialize with Davi. As Adam and Davi are enjoying a morning of fishing in Pearl Harbor, the area is attacked by Japanese fighter planes. Chapter 9 begins the high intensity action of the bombing.

Class issues and racial tension are evident in this book as were they during the time period of the 30’s and 40’s. War creates paranoid feelings that cause humans to over-generalize feelings toward broad groups. At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, many Americans viewed Japanese-Americans as if they were “the enemy”. Once Adam experiences the attack on Pearl Harbor and his father’s ship, he starts to view his friend Davi as the enemy and pushes him into the water. A fight is not allowed to ensue as bullets begin to fly everywhere and an officer spots the boys and takes them away.

Adam is then thrown into the role of a soldier and assists the military in fighting the Japanese. However, Adam maintains that his mission is to return home to his family. When he does, Adam realizes that his father is away (most likely on the Arizona). After several days the family becomes worried that Lt. Pelko has been killed or missing in action. A letter does finally arrive stating that Adam’s father has been labeled missing in action. Adam’s family then is instructed to leave Hawaii to move onto a new phase of their lives. However, before Adam leaves he is able to reconcile his feelings toward Davi.

REVIEW: I felt that the resolution to this story was rather short. However, I enjoyed this action-packed book that would be a great supplement to a study of conflict, war, or cultural tension. The story is short enough to maintain the attention of struggling readers, however there are several words that may be above the reading level of some students. There is a map at the beginning of the book so the reader can visualize the locations of the events. There is also a short “author’s note” at the end of the book that adds some historical information that was highlighted in this fictional story.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: vocabulary (coxswain 55, emplacement 49, sampans 21, issei, Nisei, and various Hawaiian terms), historical context, foreshadowing (pages 15 & 19), metaphor (page 16 house/ship), simile (pages 36, 48, & 51), and reading a map

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: offensive racial/cultural references such as “Jap” (pages 19, 23, 63), “gook” (page 85), and “haole”, youth shooting a gun in the context of war

RELATED BOOKS: Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History, Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8, Day of Deceit

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Pearl Harbor” (2001), Remember Pearl Harbor (1942)

RELATED WEBSITES: (awesome link to several sites with a movie, quiz, interactive map, survivor stories, and lesson plans) (project ideas)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

April 22, 2008

Arilla Sun Down

Arilla Sun Down

Author: Virginia Hamilton

Page Length: 296

Reading Level: unknown

Genre: Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: This story chronicles the young life of Arilla Adams and her Black/Native American family: her mother (the dancer), her father (the nomad), and her brother Jack Sun Run (who she bickers with). Even from the beginning, Jack Sun Run is not fond of his sister, but as the story progresses we see that he indeed cares for her. Arilla is a very reflective child, especially when it comes to her family. She is constantly comparing herself to them as if trying to fit herself in. Early on in the book, Arilla’s family moves to a new town near Dayton, Ohio. Arilla tries to fit in here, however her presence is overshadowed by her attractive personable brother, her talented mother, and her respected father. Birthdays and outings to the skating rink occur as the story moves. During this time, Arilla is still searching for meaning in her life. She is also searching for a “name”. The story concludes with Arilla saving her brother’s life which in turn “knocks Jack down a peg”. We also find out here that Jack saved Arilla’s life when she was very, very young. Because of this, Arilla realizes that Jack Sun Run truly cares for her. Arilla’s new name, “Arilla Sun Down” is a reflection of her bond with her brother and her power as an individual. 

REVIEW: I found this book to be rather confusing and choppy. In certain chapters, the main character Arilla, talks in broken English. The first chapter is not engaging at all. I found it hard to stay focused with this book. The various Native American names associated with the main characters added to the confusion. Students will have a hard time staying attentive with this story – especially if they are male. The main character is a younger sister who complains often about her older, more popular brother. I found Arilla to be reflective, yet annoying at times. Chapter 5 was especially unclear to me.  I did find the use of symbolism effective. 

AREAS FOR TEACHING: similes (page 93), re-reading a chapter when one does not comprehend well, symbolism (moon, sun, circle), page 150-151 lists a great speech about equality

RELATED BOOKS: Summer of My German Soldier (sibling jealousy/animosity), House on Mango Street (view-point of young girl, culture, customs)


REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

April 2, 2008

Visions 19 Short Stories by Outstanding Writers for Young Adults

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Visions 19 Short Stories by Outstanding Writers for Young Adults 

Editor: Donald R. Gallo

Page Length: 229

Reading Level: 7


PLOT SUMMARY & REVIEW: Visions is a collection of short stories by 19 different authors. The book is divided into themes: figments, adjustments, conflicts, choices, illuminations, and kinships. Each short story ends with the author biography.


“Shadows” by Richard Peck is the story of a teenage girl who encounters a ghost. Her time spent with her spinster aunts progresses and she discovers that the ghost she had once taught to write returns before she leaves for college.


“Saint Agnes Sends the Golden Boy” is a thriller about a young woman waiting for Saint Agnes to reveal her destiny. Maddy discovers the short comings in her boyfriend and dreams of Golden Boy.


“Dream Job” is the story of young woman paid to smile and greet clients for $6.25 an hour. She dreams of one day being a fabulous writer. Her dreams lead the reader on a wild ride.


“The All American Slurp” is the story of an American and Chinese family each inviting the other to dinner. Their understanding and concerns over eating customs within each culture. The humor comes into play in the slurping of soup and ultimately milkshakes – to which Meg declares “all Americans slurp.”


“Jason Kovak, The Quick and the Brave” is a seemingly real tale set amidst the horror of a hold up in a Wendy’s restaurant. Jason is an employee working the day of the hold up. He has always been mild mannered and somewhat timid. Through Jason’s struggle to maintain composure and hope in the midst of danger, he gains courage and strength. Later, Jason is called to go to the police station and identify the potential robber in a line up. Although he is afraid, he does not falter. Jason’s bad experience turns out to teach him that he is stronger and more capable than he believed.


“What Happened in the Cemetery” is the story of young Fan. Fan is a teenage girl struggling foremost with her father’s disability. Once a robust, athletic man, Fan’s father is suffering from heart ailments that are have disabled him from working. Sinking further into depression every day, Fan’s father sits around the house drinking and watching television. Fan has her own growing pains and long for a different life. When she ends up in the cemetery with Richie, she finds herself again and refuses to compromise.


“Amanda and the Wounded Birds” is the story of a young woman named Amanda. Amanda’s mother is a famous radio personality known for solving everyone’s problems and offering comforting advice. As her mother gets syndicated and becomes even more swept in her career, Amanda finds that she needs her most. With her mother always being busy on the radio, Amanda resorts to becoming one of her callers. The story concludes with a touching reconnection of mother and daughter.


“Playing God” begins with an angry Josh who is running away. He can never please his parents and his girlfriend will be moving soon. Josh’s believes it’s better to run away than let others hurt and disappoint him. Laurel, the girlfriend, watched Josh cross the bridge to leave town. It’s then that hears yelping and discovers a box of five abandoned puppies near the river. Laurel convinces Josh to save them. He returns to town to give them away. Josh finds good homes for the puppy and even returns home himself.


“The Fuller Brush Man” is a story of survival and courage. Donald sells brushes and other items throughout the neighborhood and surrounding areas. Often the door closes in his face, yet Donald persists. At home his mother’s condition is worsening daily. Donald doesn’t want to face the inevitable; yet, he’s missing out on precious time with his mother. Donald must learn to be brave and visit his mother too.


“The Good Girls” is a heart wrenching story of two lives damaged by sexually abusive fathers. Frances lives alone with her drunken and abusive father. Her escape is the ballet classes that she teaches nearby. When a new student moves slowly and seems withdrawn from the other children. It doesn’t take Frances long to figure out what is going on. Together the two give each other strength and find freedom from their abusive fathers.


“On The Bridge” is a classic tale of wanting to be popular and thinking that “bad” looks cool. Adam and Seth are hanging out together on the bridge. Adam decides to have a little fun by throwing rocks of the bridge onto the cars down below. One car gets hit by the rock and comes back up on the bridge. Three men get out and demand to know who did it. Adam fingers Seth  who is beaten by the group. Seth learns the hard way what friendship and being cool are not.


“Great Moves” details the dating adventures of two girls. One seems to be the pampered popular sought after girl, Annie, while the other a more ordinary girl, Brenda. The two most eligible young men in the grade, also friends, go to great lengths to get Annie to take one of the them to the dance. The competition is fierce and before long they are even fighting over Brenda. The girls reunite when the realize that all the boys want is competition.


“A Hundred Bucks of Happy” is the story of a teenage boy who finds a one hundred dollar bill on his way home from school. He’s ecstatic and insists despite his brother’s comments and his mother’s economic status that the money is his to spend. Yet, when he goes to the mall, nothing seems to suit him. Torn between his desires and his sense of right and wrong, Chris even returns to the spot where he found the money hoping someone will claim it and relieve him of the necessity of  decision.  In the end, Chris splits the  money with his brother and mother and harmony and relief follow.


“Cousin Alice” is the story about Fern’s visit to stay with her aunt. Her mother is in a coma and Fern has nowhere else to go while her father looks after her mother. Fern’s aunt is her mother’s twin sister. Fern uncovers the tensions among members of the town and her aunt. Her young cousin had died when she fell into a well in the neighbor’s backyard years ago. Tensions have been running high ever since. As the towns people band together against Fern’s aunt an interesting turn of events take place. A fire erupts and old scores are settled.


“Words of Power” is told much like a traditional Native American tale. Late Blossoming Flower is a young Native American woman who descends from a woman of power. When puberty arrive, she must set out to find her power word. She is not to speak but must embark upon her journey with silence until she finds what she is searching for. Following a butterfly that seems to take her away from the path of light, Late Blossoming Flower discovers her power and passes the test of restraint.


“The Sweet Perfume of Goodbye” is a Bradbury like science fiction story. Caroline is a seventeen year old scientist sent to another planet to gather data for two years. The planet is devoid of any smells except for the alluring and exotic smell of the death – to which the inhabitants rejoice and smile about – after all death is inevitable. Caroline becomes the outsider “freak show” who makes the rounds talking about Earth and its fabulous smells. She’s received with humor and polite tolerance of her wild ideas. Caroline’s ship arrive to return her to Earth; but, Caroline realizes she’s in trouble when Dr. Orr, her ride, arrives but begins talking about the lovely overwhelming fragrance.


“Jeremiah’s Song” is the story of the death of a grandfather. Ellie having gone off to college has her own views of the ways things should be. Emphasis is given to the importance of Grandpa’s stories and listening to what he has to teach. Grandpa reveals that his stories are like a bridge connecting us all to others who have experienced hardships too.


“The Boy with the Yellow Eyes” is a story of two very different boys – a bookworm, Norman and a budding athlete, Willie. Both boys meet up in an abandoned train yard. A stranger is in another box car setting up his equipment. The boys hear tapping sounds and run to investigate. Norman decodes the tapping and realizes the man is a spy. The boys are caught and Norman is captured. Willie saves the day with a well timed and placed baseball swing. The boys become heroes and even receive a visit from the Vice President.


“The Beginning of Something” tells the story a teenager, Roseanne, and her mother. One night her mother receives a call that her Cousin Jessie has passed away from complications of diabetes. Melissa, Cousin Jessie’s daughter, is suffering without her mother.  Roseanne visits and compares herself to her beautiful cousin Melissa. The two girls bond and begin to see the strengths within each other. Amidst a funeral and grieving a new adventure begins for Roseanne as she goes a double date with a childhood friend. As Melissa and Roseanne grow closer together, Roseanne reflects on how their friendship and dating secrets mirror those of their mothers.




REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

February 11, 2008

Navajo Long Walk

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Navajo Long Walk

Author: Nancy M. Armstrong

Illustrator: Paulette Livers Lambert

Page Length: 119

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Historical Fiction


REVIEW & PLOT SUMMARY: A book about Native Americans makes me think back to history class in middle school. At first I was not enthused about the subject, however when I read the introduction on page one I realized this was not just an adventure story or boring history lesson, but a tale about how the United States government forced 8,000 Navajo Indians from their homeland in eastern Arizona in 1864. The Navajos were made to trek over 300 hundred miles on foot and wagon to a fort in eastern New Mexico. There they were held captive for four years. The trek they made to New Mexico is known as the “Long Walk”.


This book is specifically about a boy named Kee, his sister Hasba, his mother Gentle Woman, his father Strong Man, and his grandmother Wise One. There are also several other animal characters that belong to the Native American family: a donkey named Small Burro and a dog named Gray Dog. As you can tell, all of these names are from Native American tradition and culture.


This is a coming-of-age story for the main character, Kee. His father is lost in the trek to Fort Sumner, and Kee must take on many attributes of a grown man. He is now the “man of the family”. Many changes take place in this story from the scenery of the South-west to the feelings this particular Native American family has towards the soldiers known as the “white man”. The family grows to realize that not all American soldiers are cruel. Even Kee, the character who at first resents the soldiers the most, befriends the son of the leader at Fort Sumner – Captain Harris.


Towards the end of the story, the Navajo, after a treaty with the U.S. Government, are allowed to return home to Arizona. After this point in the story, I found the ending a bit predictable. The father is described as waiting at home for his family’s return. He has spent time preparing food and shelter to welcome them home.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: This easy to read book does a great job describing the conditions in which the Navajo live in their home land as well as in their new surroundings. Weather, food, and shelter are all portrayed with vivid descriptions and examples. On page 87, one quote stood out in this respect – “meals often came from the tough stringy meat of an animal that had starved to death”. Now I liked the fact that there was a map at the very beginning of the story where I could refer to. Names that are not generally used today (ie. Eagle Feather, Long Earrings, Kee), may prove difficult for some students. It might be hard for students to keep track of the characters at the very beginning. A lesson about tradition and names could easily supplement this struggle.




REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton


January 31, 2008

My Land Sings: Stories from the Rio Grande

My Land Sings: Stories from the Rio Grande

Author: Rudolfo Anaya

Page Length: 176

Reading Level: 5th

Genre: Short Story, Folklore, Fables


REVIEW, PLOT SUMMARY, & AREAS FOR TEACHING: Every English teacher must read the Preface of this book on pages 7-16! In these lines, the author portrays a genuine opinion about the richness of reading and story telling. The Preface is also important in that it highlights the 10 short stories that follow. Some of the tales in this book are from the Hispanic and Native-American folklore tradition, while others are original stories created by the author himself. Each story teaches a lesson and draws upon the culture of those that lived near the Rio Grande Valley. The lessons in this compilation of stories include parental obedience, death’s role in life, consequence of keeping secrets, saving for a rainy day, respect for elders, explanations of natural events, and the search for eternal youth.


Students will likely recognize the first story titled “Lupe and la Lorona”. I believe there is a version of this story in the World Literature text. This tale is about a woman (Lorona) who is threatened that her baby will be taken from her. She then runs near the river where she and the baby “fall into the water”. Some believe Lorona intentionally threw the baby into the water. The child is lost and the woman is left to walk along the river mourning for the loss of her baby. Lorona’s mourning takes the form of crying. The lesson is that children should not disobey their parents and travel near the river without permission for fear that Lorona will appear. The main character in this first story, Lupe, learns this lesson and several others.


“Dulcinea” is about a girl of the same name who wants to break free from the chains of her present life. She decides to disobey her parents’ orders and go to a dance with a charming man. The man turns out to be an evil spirit with hands of goat hooves. As punishment, Dulcinea is psychologically unable to move on in life. They say if you listen to the wind closely, you can hear Dulcinea’s crying pain.


“The Three Brothers” contains religious themes linked to the issue of greed. The family has three sons, two of which took the road of selfishness which led them to hell – depicted as a city. The third brother went down the honorable path and was led to a mansion – referred to as heaven. The third brother is rewarded with a full and prosperous life.


“Dona Sebastiana” is about a poor man, Baltazar, who steals a chicken then refuses to share it with the “Lord” and the “Virgin Mary”. Out of fear, the man does end up sharing his meal with “Death” – referred to as Dona Sebastiana. For the kindness to Death, Dona Sebastiana grants Baltazar the power to heal people. However, the man must not try to heal a person when Death is at the “head of the bed”. Due to his new power, Baltazar became very wealthy. Then a man named Don Mateo came to the healer because his daughter was sick. Even though Death was at the head of the bed, Baltazar healed the young woman. Death later took the life of Baltazar saying one can never cheat death. In the end you always lose.


“The Shepherd Who Knew the Language of Animals” is about a boy who, upon helping a serpent, is granted the power to hear the communication of animals. There was one catch: he could never tell anyone about his power or else he would die. With this power, the boy found out that a treasure was buried near a tree that he was at. People questioned where the poor boy got the money. An arrest was never made though. Then the boy met a girl who wanted to find out what secret her lover had been keeping from her. The boy was about to tell her until a dream came to the girl. Upon experiencing the dream, the girl came to the conclusion that secrets belong to the people that own them. She was content on not knowing her lover’s secret about the animals.


“The Fountain of Youth” is about adventurers who were willing to sell their soul to evil in exchange for eternal youth. However, evil did not deliver on its deal. Instead, evil trapped these adventurers forever in its prison. The moral: never make a deal with the devil.


“The Lost Camel” is about identifying people who are honest. The Virgin Mary is present in this story. An apple cut in two is used as the means to identify honesty in individuals. This story was rather simple.


“The Miller’s Good Luck” is about the role of luck versus careful planning in making a man rich. Two men in this story set out to prove each other wrong by giving some money to a man named Pedro Bernal. Pedro ends up losing some of the fortune the men give him. In the end, by luck, he discovers a diamond in a fish and becomes wealthy. Afterwards, the lost money from the beginning returns. The two men from the initial lines, still do not resolve their conflict.


“Sipa’s Choice” is about a boy who disobeys his father and his god’s wishes to take care of the fish. This request was the only one the god made in return for the boy’s healed leg. The boy grew too proud and viewed the teachings of his father as meaningless. In return, the god turned the boy and his people into fish.


“Coyote and Raven” is a creative tale about how man and woman came to live on the Earth’s surface with animals. It also told the story of how the raven got its black feathers and how the coyote lost its long tail. Furthermore, this story illustrated the reasons why humans fight amongst each other. I found this story to be the most entertaining of all of the tales in this book.


I like that there is a glossary in the back with Hispanic terms that were used throughout the book. This book would be great for students who tire easily with long chapters and lengthy books. The short tales can be easily read in 5-10 minutes.




REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

January 27, 2008

Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered

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Harris and Me

Author: Gary Paulsen

Page Length: 157

Reading Level: 5.7


PLOT SUMMARY & REVIEW: This book tells the story of an eleven year old boy who has to spend time living with different relatives due to his parent’s alcohol abuse. The story begins with the boy, whose name we never learn, being dropped off at the Larsons, distant relatives he barely knows. Harris, from the title, is a nine year old cousin who is never without a scheme for an adventure.


At first glance I thought this seemed to be a different type of Gary Paulson book, but there is definitely a survival element here. The boy is from the city and the Larsons live in the country. The culture shock is immediately apparent and the boy has to learn to stay away from the back end of Vivian the cow and out of Ernie the rooster’s sights and to avoid numerous other perils he knows nothing about.


Paulson builds the relationship between the two boys slowly and in a very real way. I found myself alternately chuckling about the latest plan Harris had dreamed up and worrying if the boys were going to survive it. You can often see before the boys start what is going to go wrong with the plan, for example jumping out of the hayloft onto the farm’s biggest horse just like they saw Gene Autry do in the picture show, or hooking up the washing machine motor to a bicycle to set a new land speed record.


TOUCHY AREAS: The book is not for everyone. Harris is rude and crude and there are accurate descriptions of snot and stepping in manure and bodily functions.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: The book is great for making predictions and each chapter even begins with a little tease about what is to come in that chapter. It is also rich with colloquialisms many of which I had never heard and that I suspect are Paulsen originals. There is also an element of peer pressure the boy has to deal with. Harris is a force to be reckoned with and while he doesn’t ever change Harris, the boy does begin to make some decisions based on the idea of self-preservation.


Paulson holds nothing back. The characters are realistically drawn and the ending is touching and just a little bit sad. The theme of finding a real friend and a place you belong in the world is summed up in a few simple words the boy speaks when he is leaving, “…I had a nice summer.” I left the book knowing he was going to miss Harris and I might too, just a little.




REVIEWED BY: Sherry Hall

January 25, 2008


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Author: Paul Fleischman

Page Length: 83

Reading Level: 5.5


REVIEW: This is a play that has been actually performed by several high school drama departments. Paul Fleischman wrote it when he realized many high schools get stuck in a rut performing the same plays over and over again. He wanted something new that would work for a high school stage and the result is Zap.


How shall I begin to explain the premise? Zap is seven plays in one sharing the same stage; Shakespeare’s Richard III and 6 original plays based on well known genres set in different time periods. There is a British Murder Mystery ala Agatha Christie, a Russian play similar to the style of Chekhov, a southern Tennessee Williams type play, a Neil Simon inspired comedy, an avant-garde Samuel Beckett style play and a performance art monologue.


The play has a single set. The actors wear period costumes. When switching from one play to another, a loud zap is heard which is supposedly from a remote control. The stage blacks out and when the lights quickly come back on there is a new scene. As the play goes on there are intentional goofs where actors from different scenes end up on stage together as if by accident. The “improvisation” that happens in these scenes made me laugh. The chaos continues to the point that the characters in the plays drop their roles at times and address each other as their “real” selves. I should also mention that at the beginning of the story the audience is told that if they do not like the scene they are watching they should hit the remote printed on their program and that those signals will be gathered and tallied and when a certain number is reached the scene will change. This is part of the joke of audience control that is referred to in the play.


It sounds confusing, and I thought it would be a nightmare to keep all the storylines straight, but it was not difficult. Readers do need some schema about these different genres of plays though to appreciate all of the humor. Fleischman makes mention of this as well. That to me is the real challenge of this book. It is not a sit in your seats and take a part to read aloud type of play. The visual here is very important.  Zap is a quick, fun read that will need some advance preparation but should be well worth it.




REVIEWED BY: Sherry Hall

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