The Book Reviews – Website

January 1, 2011

The Road of the Dead

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The Road of the Dead

Author: Kevin Brooks

Page Length: 339

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Ruben has always been different. He can sense what others are thinking or feeling even when they’re not near him. One night he senses that his sister Rachel is in pain and is gripped by fear. The next day, his family finds out that Rachel was murdered. He and his older brother Cole set out on to avenge her death and find out who killed her. Before long, they are themselves victims of violence. Trapped in a web of deceit and surrounded by people who want to silence them permanently, Cole and Ruben must fight their way out. Their only goal is to take Rachel’s body home for a proper burial... if they can make it back alive.

REVIEW: Typical Kevin Brooks book – edgy, violent, dark, foul mouthed, violent… To some teens though – this might be interesting. I found the book to be a little shallow and unrealistic – 2 boys taking on an entire town – what are the chances? The fact that the girl has been raped and murdered is a little dark (not something the teenage mind always needs more of). The review on the back of the book mentions “brutal, vivid violence” – I totally concur. I would not read this book as a class. On a historical note, the road of the dead was a passageway, funeral processions walked along to arrive to the final resting place of the body many years ago.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: imagery, author’s purpose, sequence of events, cause and effect

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: many – violence, shooting, torture, rape, dead bodies, etc.

RELATED BOOKS: Lucas, Candy, Being


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

December 19, 2010

Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska by John Green: Book Cover

Looking for Alaska

Author: John Green

Page Length: 221


Reading Level: 6


Genre: Realistic Fiction


Career Connection: Teacher      

PLOT SUMMARY: When only two people attend his going away party, Miles Halter knows he has made a good decision to leave his Florida home and attend Culver Creek Preparatory School in Alabama.  And, as he leaves he uses Francois Rabelais’s last words—“I go to seek a Great Perhaps”.

Upon his arrival at Culver Creek, Miles meets his roommate, Chip “The Colonel” Martin.  Through Chip, he is introduced to Alaska Young – wild and self destructive – but the girl who captures his heart. After Miles is duct-taped and thrown into a lake, an all out prank war ensues between the “Weekday Warriors” and Miles and his new friends,

As the school year progresses, Miles finds himself involved in illegal activities such as smoking and drinking on campus while his affections for Alaska grow.  Although Alaska is quite coy with Miles, she dates a college student and introduces him to Lara, a Romanian girl, who eventually becomes his girlfriend.  Takumi, a Japanese student, is the fifth member of this group of pranksters.

It is during one night after a “pre-prank” against the Warriors, the group plays a drinking game and Alaska reveals to her friends that when she was 8 years old, she watched her mother die from a brain aneurysm.  The guilt she carries seemed to be an explanation of why she lives “on the edge”.

On another night of drinking, Alaska and Colonel become extremely drunk.  Alaska and Miles share an intimate moment before falling asleep.  Later, Alaska receives a phone call and comes back into the room, hysterical, telling the boys they must help her get away.  The events that follow devastate the group in realms beyond their control and imagination.

REVIEW: The chapters of the book are titled in “Before and After” sequences which tell the reader that something monumental occurs halfway through the book. This format is a “hook” to the reader, as well as, the curling smoke on the cover of the book. 

I rate this book as one of the best young adult novels I have read because of the captivating voice of Miles as he leaves his safe world of isolation and plunges into a life of love and loss through new found friends.  He shares humor in his revelations and meaning through his thoughts that cause the reader to connect with each of the well-developed characters. 

Senior high students of both genders would relate well to the events and characters of the book.  At the end of the book, a discussion guide and interview with the author are included.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: cigarette, marijuana, and alcohol use, sexually explicit situations

AREAS OF TEACHING: Conflict, Setting, Characters, Point of View, and Voice, Mood, and Tone

RELATED BOOKS: Speak, Morning is a Long Time Coming, Shattered Glass


MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Famous Last Words (from Looking for Alaska, to be released 2013), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt: Book Cover

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy


Author: Gary D. Schmidt


Page Length: 219


Reading Level: 5.5


Genre: Realistic Fiction     

PLOT SUMMARY: The story is set in 1912 in Phippsburg, Maine. Turner Buckminster and his parents have recently moved to the small coastal town from Boston, Massachusetts.  Turner’s father is the new town minister.  Turner is not accepted well by the townspeople, primarily for the way he plays baseball.  While out throwing rocks, Turner meets Lizzie Bright, an African American girl who lives on an island just across the bay.

While Turner befriends Lizzie, the townspeople decide that the residents of Malaga Island (Lizzie’s home) should be taken off the island so that the island can be transformed into a resort.  Meanwhile, the deacons of the church and Mrs. Cobb keep the minister informed of his son’s wrongdoings. Subsequently, Turner is forbidden to go to Malaga Island and sentenced to read and play the organ for Mrs. Cobb in the afternoons. This punishment turns into a chance for Mrs. Cobb and Turner to bond. Lizzie also joins the two as she comes to listen to Turner.

When Mrs. Cobb dies, she leaves her home to Turner. When Turner decides to move Lizzie and other residents of the island into the vacated home, Turner’s father supports his son (however much of the congregation turn on the minister).  An accident ensues and the minister is ousted from the church. As a result, Turner and his mother are forced to move into Mrs. Cobb’s vacant home. 

After the minister’s death, the town falls into terrible debt, and all too late the people of Phippsburg find that their racial prejudice and greediness left them with virtually nothing.

REVIEW: This book is based on actual events that occurred in Maine in the early 20th century.  The writing is very descriptive and many similes are used.  It would be an excellent novel to read in connection with the social issues of the time

The relationship that Turner experiences with the whales on pages 79-80 and 214-216 are chilling. 

AREAS OF TEACHING: Similes, Descriptive Writing, Character, Theme, Setting, and Historical Context

RELATED BOOKS: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Leon’s Story, Mississippi Morning

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: A Time to Kill (1996), Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1978), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

The Book Thief

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: Book Cover

The Book Thief

Author: Markus Zusak

Page Length: 550

Reading Level: 4.0

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Liesel Meminger hasn’t had an easy childhood. Her mother, faced with nothing to feed her children, had to send them away to foster parents in Germany. Liesel has lived in the shadows of talk about her father being a communist and she watches her sweet, dear baby brother die right in front of her. Her foster mother is harsh and calls her names; yet, there is love on Himmel Street. Her foster father nurtures her and teaches her to read. She becomes great friends with Rudy and embarks on many adventures with him. Liesel loves books and finds great comfort in them. But Liesel is a German, a member of Hitler Youth, and a great war is raging. Even her little corner of Himmel Street cannot escape the results of Hitler’s actions, and death is always watching and waiting.

REVIEW: One excellent teaching point from this book is “voice” in the form of the unusual narrator of the story and the perspective that death brings to it (a great example of that compositional risk aspect of writing needed to achieve a 4 on the TAKS test). Another great teaching point is the humanity of the people and even the “enemy” during war in the book. The power of love and friendship are notable points too.

I did not find the beginning of the book very engaging, but by the second half the story seemed more interesting and easier to follow. Even the small words in another language make fluency more difficult. I would not use this book as a classroom read and would not recommend it to struggling readers. I read in one of the reviews that in his home country this is considered an adult book.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: comparing text to self, compare and contrast, sequence of events, historical context, compositional risk – narrator

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: treatment of Jews, bullying, death in bombing, death of a sibling, separation from a parent

RELATED BOOKS: Four Perfect Pebbles, The Diary of Anne Frank, books by Zusak: Fighting Ruben Wolf, Getting the Girl, The Underdog, I Am the Messenger

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: The Diary of Anne Frank, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2009), Schindler’s List

RELATED WEBSITES: (awesome video intro to the book) (Zusak interview)

REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

The Afterlife

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The Afterlife by Gary Soto: Book Cover

The Afterlife

Author: Gary Soto

Page Length: 161

Reading Level: 6.1

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Chuy’s just a normal seventeen year old. He likes to hang out with his friends and he’s hoping to snag a girlfriend soon. But fate has another plan. At a club his mother warned him about, Chuy is stabbed multiple times and left for dead on the bathroom floor. Why Chuy? Why now?

REVIEW: This book has a lot of potential. I think it would be an excellent read for many students. One of the great teachable moments of this book occurs when both Chuy and Crystal reflect on their choices and the course of their young lives. Students learn that Crystal killed herself out of fear and the Chuy’s killer lives by and in fear of those around him. The tragic deaths are explored in terms of their effects on the families, friends, and even strangers around them. Students can reflect how we all matter to more people than we may think and how far reaching one’s influence really is on others. Being a book about death – it’s message is all about what it means to live and about how life should be about taking chances and facing our fears.

The book begins with Chuy alive and in a club where he is suddenly stabbed to death in the bathroom. The rest of the book is about Chuy’s acceptance and exploration of his death as he travels about his neighborhood as a ghost. Chuy makes friends and discoveries, and he learns even more about his life as he witnesses the effect his death has on others.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: comparing text to self, compare and contrast, sequence of events, writing styles – reflective

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: stabbing (pages 2-3), death, suicide, fighting

RELATED BOOKS: Buried Onions, Baseball in April, A Summer Life, Accidental Love, The Lovely Bones (A Sebold)

RELATED WEBSITES:  (awesome book trailer)

REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

Hannah’s Touch

Hannah's Touch by Laura Langston: Book Cover

Hannah’s Touch


Author: Laura Langston


Page Length: 132


Reading Level: 3.1


Genre: Fiction


Career Connections: Pharmacist, Psychiatrist, Teacher, Minister   

PLOT SUMMARY: Hannah has not been able to let the death of her boyfriend, Logan, go.  She still wears his St. Christopher medallion and mourns him daily.  One day, she leaves her job at the pharmacy and goes to a field of flowers and thinks about Logan.  As she is leaving the meadow, she feels a sharp sting, and realizes she has been stung by a bee.  What she doesn’t realize is that she is having an allergic reaction as she stumbles back to the pharmacy parking lot.

While experiencing the reaction, Hannah has an out of body experience where she feels like she sees Logan.  Amazingly, she discovers that she now has a gift of healing – M. C.’s dog, Alan’s thumb, and Lexi’s nose, then Allen, whom she has blamed for Logan’s death.

As Hannah wrestles with her new found gift, anger towards Allen, and grieving for Logan, she comes to understand a message that was sent to her.

REVIEW: The question of supernatural healing is the theme of the book and would spark interest among teens.  The interest level would be appealing to girls who are reluctant readers.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: occasional mild profanity

AREAS OF TEACHING: Character, Point of View, Personification

RELATED BOOKS: The Changeover, The Haunting


MOVIE CONNECTIONS: My Girl (1991), The Sixth Sense (1999)

BOOK REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

On My Honor

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On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer: Book Cover

On My Honor

Author: Marion Dane Bauer

Page Length: 90

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Joel and Tony are deciding how to spend their long summer day when Tony decides that climbing the starved rock bluffs would be fun. Joel’s terrified – people have died on those rocks. Joel would rather do something safe like swimming at the local pool, but Tony insists on an adventure. Joel decides that asking his dad will end the debate because he’s sure that his father will say no. But surprisingly Joel’s dad agrees as long as Joel promises “on his honor” to only go to the park and back. Both boys promise but as their journey gets under way, Tony stops under the bridge where there’s water. Both boys have been warned about the danger of the river. But Joel, too reluctant to stand up to Tony, and Tony, always too desperate to prove how tough he is, decide to plunge in. It’s a fateful decision that will change everything!

REVIEW: This book makes a huge impact in a very small amount of pages. There are numerous teaching moments for students to identify with. Both boys and girls would benefit from this story, but, it would especially appeal to boys who have dealt with peer pressure issues. Students will feel the devastation that occurs because of Joel’s inability to stand up for what is right – even when someone else doesn’t want to. Teachers can discuss what the actions should have been – before swimming and after. This book would lead to an excellent discussion on other mistakes such as potentially deadly peer pressure situations that can or have arisen. This is an excellent book for reaching students!

AREAS FOR TEACHING: sequence of events, cause and effect, making predictions, author’s purpose, character traits, connecting text to self


RELATED BOOKS: Blue Ghost, Killing Miss Kitty, Questions of Trust, Like Mother, Like Daughter, Red Ghost, Rain of Fire


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor


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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

Aria of the Sea

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Aria of the Sea by Dia Calhoun: Book Cover

Aria of the Sea

Author: Dia Calhoun

Reading Level: 5

Page Length: 264

Genre: Fiction

Career Connections: Dancer, Healer   

PLOT SUMMARY: After the death of her mother, Cerinthe Gale decides to follow the dream of her mother by pursuing her dancing talents.  She travels to the School of Royal Dancers, where she is accepted after the audition, although she is a commoner.  Cerinthe has the gifts of a healer.  However, she feels guilty because she was unable to save the life of her mother.  Because of this guilt, Cerinthe feels emptiness inside that is not fulfilled through her dancing. 

At the school, Cerinthe has several incidents which make her feel even more inept.  She has a disagreement with a young man she actually feels some desire for, a miscommunication with a teacher, a huge rivalry with Elliana – a very rich student, and an encounter with a mederi – a healer with magical powers.

When an accident between Cerinthe and Elliana occurs, Cerinthe is faced with the question she had earlier in her life with her mother—should she try to help Elliana or wait for the mederi to arrive?

REVIEW: This is a great book for girls from middle school to high school age who are interested in dance or any competition to read.  The characters are well developed and their feelings are easy to relate to.  The idea that a young girl can possess healing powers is intriguing and the discipline that dancers must endure is inspiring.


AREAS OF TEACHING: Setting, Character, Conflict, Sequence of Events

RELATED BOOKS: Avielle of Rhia, The Phoenix Dance, White Midnight


MUSIC, MOVIE, AND ART CONNECTIONS: The Turning Point (1977), The Company (2003), and Center Stage (2000)

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

June 5, 2010

Bud, Not Buddy

Bud, Not Buddy

Author: Christopher Paul Curtis

Page Length: 243

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Ever since Bud (not Buddy) lost his mother four years ago, life has been anything but easy. Bud’s been placed in homes only to be mistreated and returned again to the orphanage known as the Home. Despite his hardships, Bud hasn’t given up on himself or on finding his father. His mother left behind flyers of a famous man, Herman E. Callaway, and Bud’s come to realize they were clues – clues he believes that will lead him closer to his father. Despite setbacks and the need to adhere to Bud’s rules of life (lessons he’s learned the hard way), Bud presses on alone, never giving up. Set amidst the Great Depression this book tells a story of courage, love, and perseverance like no other.

REVIEW: Loved it! This is a fantastic story! The characters are well developed and entertaining. The story blends humor, tragedy and triumph beautifully. This book would be a great way of making curriculum connections due to its in-depth look at the Great Depression. The reader senses the hardships of the people living in the Flint shanties as well as the racial equality struggles of the time. Bud never gives up or turns to hatred despite the hardships he’s endured. The lessons the author gives about one door closing and another opening are wonderful – and could be applicable to all of life and opportunity. Truly the best book, I’ve read in awhile and very deserving of the Newberry.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: cause and effect, author’s purpose, sequence of events, imagery, inferences, predictions, character analysis, historical connections

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: mild racism references, death of a parent

RELATED BOOKS: Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963, Bucking the Sarge, Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck, The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Seabiscuit (2003), Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken (1991), Annie (1999), The Cinderella Man (2005)

MUSIC CONNECTION: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

September 28, 2009

Funny Little Monkey

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Funny Little Monkey

Author: Andrew Auseon

Page Length: 298

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Arty Moore is a fourteen-year-old boy with a growth hormone deficiency which has stifled his growth to a mere 4’ 2”. Arty has a twin brother, Kurt, who has seemed to get all of the growth hormones of the two and towers more than 6’ tall. 

Kurt has tormented Arty most of their adolescent life, and when Arty hears of an “underground misfit group” in his school, he employs them to sabotage his brother.  When the school mascot is stolen, Kurt becomes a prime target of accusation. 

While the underground organization mounts evidence against Kurt, Arty becomes infatuated with Leslie Dermott, the new, rich girl in town.   Arty doesn’t really know why, but Leslie seems to enjoy his company, also. A series of events follow that make Arty question his feelings about his brother, mother, Leslie, and the underground misfits.

REVIEW: Young teen boys would enjoy this book as it deals with many of the feelings they experience in the years of puberty and early maturity. The book had several subplots that kept the story line interesting. However, the book focuses on many negative behaviors and feelings and the author does not end it with any strong socially redeeming conclusion.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Theme, Character, Conflict, Cause/Effect, and Compare/Contrast

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Mild profanity, some underage tobacco, alcohol, and drug use


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 30, 2009

Hanging on to Max

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Hanging on to Max

Author: Margaret Bechard

Page Length: 204

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Postcards from No Man’s Land

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Postcards from No Man’s Land

Author: Aidean Chambers

Page Length: 312

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Jacob’s grandmother is ill, and Jacob must take a trip to Amsterdam in her place. The purpose of Jacob’s journey to Amsterdam is to see his grandfather’s (a World War II veteran) burial site. Jacob meets the elderly ailing woman who nursed his grandfather during the war and learns much more than he was expecting about his family’s past. Along the journey, Jacob discovers new friends and new feelings he never knew he had. Geertrui shares with Jacob the secrets of his grandfather’s past as she weaves the tales of their adventures during World War II. 

REVIEW: Chambers wrote a masterful story that was outside the realm of the “normal” historical fiction novel. The author does a wonderful job of blending past and present events as the chapters shift from Geertrui in the past to Jacob in the present. In the end, it is revealed that Geertrui has recorded the story for Jacob in her journal – her last act before her assisted suicide is scheduled to take place. Be warned that the book addresses Jacob’s developing awareness of his sexuality and his attraction to both men and women. Bisexuality becomes a topic among more than one of the characters. The story of the war and Geertrui’s love for Jacob’s grandfather is wonderfully told. The reader gets a realistic sense of the urgency and danger present during the war.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: sequence of events, historical connections, character traits, methods of writing, compare and contrast

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: topic of bisexuality, pages 199-200 sex between Geertrui and a married soldier

RELATED BOOKS: Breaktime, Dance on My Grave, Now I Know, The Tollbridge, The Diary of Anne Frank, Four Perfect Pebbles

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: The Diary of Anne Frank

ART CONNECTIONS: Amsterdam – Dutch Resistance Museum online

MUSIC CONNECTIONS: Hit Songs from World War 2


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

My Life and Death by Alexandra Canarsie

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My Life and Death by Alexandra Canarsie

Author: Susan Heyboer O’Keefe

Page Length: 255

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Alexandra, with her mother, has just returned to her mother’s home town, Nickel Park. Alexandra has had trouble in every school she’s been to lately, she and her mother are always on the move, and she already hates life in this little town trailer park. The only pastime Allie enjoys is attending funerals – even of complete strangers. This time Allie makes a new friend, find a teacher who believes in her, and uncovers a mystery – it appears that Jimmy was murdered and Allie intends to find out who did it.

REVIEW: This book was an “ok” read. It deals with some of the typical issues of teenage rebellion and general discontent. The one notable subject matter was that Allie constantly blames her mother for the disappearance of her father – and in her mind she romanticizes the reasons why she hasn’t heard from him – only to later come to terms with the crushing reality that he’s started a new life and doesn’t want her included in it. There are many likable characters for readers to relate to. However, the plot isn’t as well developed as it could be, and Allie’s counter bullying of Dennis and the consequences isn’t adequately addressed.

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

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: bullying issues, funeral descriptions, suicide due to parent acceptance issues

RELATED BOOKS: Death by Eggplant, Christmas Gifts


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor



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

Ball Don’t Lie

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Ball Don’t Lie

Author: Matt de la Pena

Page Length: 280  

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Sticky is a skinny 17-year-old high school junior living in Venice, California.  This is his fourth foster home, after living with his drug addicted, prostitute mother who committed suicide when Sticky was only a young child.  Sticky has an obsessive compulsive disorder, but can usually get control of it after a few minutes.

Although Sticky is white and has been passed from family to family, he has developed an amazing talent for basketball.  He considers his real home the neighborhood recreational gym where old NBA basketball players as well as the homeless hang out.  His passion for basketball is unstoppable.

Surprising even to Sticky, Anh-thu, an Asian girl from school is attracted to him. She loves to watch him play basketball and wants to help him reach his goals and aspirations of making something of the predictable future of a poor white kid living on the street.

Sticky has great plans for Anh-thu’s birthday but they are halted after Sticky is approached for sex at the rec center, makes a bad decision after being taunted by one of the players and finds himself in a dire situation.

REVIEW: I would recommend this book for mature teens.  It is well written in third person voice.  The author is able to create emotion, passion, and suspense in his writing, while covering several intimate scenarios that Sticky experiences in his young life.  Sticky is exposed to difficult situations as a young child, and life doesn’t get easier for him with age. 

The reader is able to see Sticky grow and mature as he progresses through his junior year with the boys at the gym, with his foster family, his girlfriend, and his schoolmates. This is an excellent book for boys interested in basketball.  

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Character, Setting, Supporting Details, Sequence of Events, Conflict, Compare/Contrast, and Cause/Effect

TOUCHY AREAS: harsh profanity (p. 53, 128, 171, 175, 230), physical abuse (p. 65), sexual activity (p. 88, 164), sexual abuse (125), drug use (p. 226)

RELATED BOOKS: Slam, Painting the Black, The Crazy Horse Electric Game, Athletic Shorts

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Ball Don’t Lie (not yet released), Hoop Dreams (1994, Documentary), Hoosiers (1986), Heaven is a Playground (1991), Above the Rim (1994), On Hallowed Ground: Streetball Champions of Rucker Park (2001 Documentary)


 REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

The Dashwood Sisters’ Secrets of Love

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The Dashwood Sisters’ Secrets of Love

Author: Rosie Rushton

Page Length: 325

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Ellie, Abby, and Georgie have always lived a comfortable life. They have plenty of money, attend a well known school, and live in a large home passed down by their ancestors. Most of the time the girls are worrying about going out, dating, and what exciting adventure they’ll choose to participate in next – until tragedy hits a little too close to home! It’s when everything changes and the girls are on the brink of losing everything that they learn what really matters to themselves and each other.

REVIEW: This book was ok. It is interesting from the stand point of being told through the interests of three very different sisters: the tomboy, the socialite, and the practical one. Most girls will be able to identify with predicaments and feelings that at least one of the girls share. A real life look at what matters most is brought about in the story line when their father is taken from them. The girls must learn to come together and find their strengths outside of their former fortune. Students might also identify with the father leaving the family to take up with a younger woman who seems to have “taken over” their dad. One of the girls falls for a young man who appears to be taken and keeps promising to break it off with the other girl (another issue many girls will be able to relate to).

Overall, it’s not a bad book. I did find the first half of the book confusing because I kept trying to backtrack and remember which girl was which. The book cover cites the book as “an engaging homage to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.”

AREAS FOR TEACHING: character traits, elements of plot, comparing and contrasting the characters, comparing text to self, point of view, effective use of dialogue in writing

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: lying to sneak out to a club, vicious controlling games the girlfriend plays to keep her man

RELATED BOOKS: Summer of Secrets, Secret Schemes, Daring Dreams, What a Week to Risk it All, The Secrets of Love, Looking for Billie

RELATED WEBSITES:                    

REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

The Book Thief

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The Book Thief

Author: Markus Zusak

Page Length: 550

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY & REVIEW:  “Six year old Werner” lies dead at his young sister’s feet by the train, and little Leizel looks on as her mother abandons her to a foster family.   The story takes place during the war time of Nazi Germany within Adolph Hitler’s major aggressive reign in Germany against the Jews.  The main characters are Leizel Meminger and her family who live on Himmel Street right outside the city of Munich, Germany, and the Meminger’s various neighbors.  The Book Thief is a narrative written by “Death” who acts as an omniscient presence during the death struggles of all the innocent and guilty victims during the war. 

Leisel later becomes a foster child and continues her young life in the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann.   She is like any other child who enjoys playing.  However, she is introduced just as she begins stealing books.   The first book taken is the grave yard handbook which she steals from the cemetery where her brother is buried.  She doesn’t yet read, but will be taught how to read by her new foster father.  Her favorite friend is Rudy who helps her begin stealing more books.  Leizel’s mother, Rosa, does washing and ironing for the neighboring women, and Hans, her father, paints for a living as well as plays an accordion.

The plot gets more into the German War strategies which Hitler has created.  The young boys are sent into military training, and Jews are constantly being caught and herded off to concentration camps.  

The theme in this book is based upon the psychological feelings of terror, fear and death.   However, there is an underlying theme of happiness due to the spirit of human love and kindness.   The reader sees fear in a recurring nightmare about the death of her brother, as well as the last time she saw her mother before she was abandoned.   She wishes the dreams to go away, but they don’t.  However, her papa, Hans, often comforts her and the two are bonded together by reading books.   The reader also senses terror in the book as the “air raids” of bombs begin to deter German victory.   The reader also sees and feels Death as the very first victim becomes Leizel’s little brother, Werner.   Death is also seen in the huddle of masses of Jewish bodies, and in the bodies of many soldiers fatally wounded on the streets.  The underlying theme of happiness is seen quite frequently as families and friends laugh over music, games, and joyful times together.

As the war goes on, and the economy goes sour Rosa Humberman loses many of her customers.  One of which, is the mayor’s wife who has a huge library which Leizel loves, because of the many books.   Unfortunately, Leizel has a lot of anger built up inside of her, and hates the mayor’s wife for eventually dropping her mom from working for her.   She then, begins to steal books from the old lady, and does so with her friend Rudy.  

Somewhere in the beginning of the war the Hubermann’s begin hiding a Jew named Max.  His profession at one time was that of a fist fighter.   He stayed in their basement, for some time, to keep hidden from the Furer and his men.    He and Leizel became very close, and she befriends him with gifts and newspapers she picks up off the streets by Himmel Street.   It’s impossible for Leizel to say anything about her new Jewish friend as it is a dangerous thing to hide a Jew, because it would probably get them all killed.

There are a total of ten parts to the book, and each one plays an important role in allowing the reader to get the complete picture of what the effects of war are, and how it affects people – mostly little Liesel Meminger.    The parts are as follows: 1) The Grave Digger’s Handbook 2)  The Shoulder Shrug – the next book Leizel  has taken from a Nazi book burning   3)  Mein Kampf – a book of Hitler which when translated is My Struggle  4) The standover man  6) Dream Carrier  7) The Complete Duden Dictionary and Thesaurus – a gift from the mayor’s wife to Leisel  8 – The Word Shaker 9) The last human stranger  10) The Book Thief      

The conclusion of this story comes after the Ally forces bombs away at Liesel’s home on Himmel Street.   Her foster parents and all of her friends are killed.  All of the homes become a huge burnt rubble.  She has nowhere to go, so the police take her in until the Mayor and his family come and take Leisel home with them.  Death does not come to Leisel until she is an older lady in the town of Sidney.   She had married, and leaves behind children as well as grandchildren.   Her story, The Book Thief, which was written while her parents were alive was given back to her from Death himself when she took her last breath.  She was quite a super hero as she loved words, adored books, and shared all that she knew with anyone who she came into contact with. In conclusion, this was a very good book!


6.9 draw upon experience to for word meanings

6.10 know main idea and details

6.11 connect and compare the various ideas

6.12 analyze characters                 

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: It is all about death which can always be a bit depressing.

RELATED BOOKS:   Other books by Zusak are: The Messenger, Getting the Girl, The Happy Prince and other Stories, Fighting Reuben Wolfe

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: “The Hiding Place” (a movie in the 70’s)


REVIEWED BY: Linda Schwegler

Athletic Shorts

Athletic Shorts

Author: Chris Crutcher

Page Length: 194  

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Athletic Shorts is a book containing six short stories.  Crutcher has taken characters from his novels and writes new stories in different scenarios.  Peety, Johnny Rivers, and Telephone Man, all characters from The Crazy Horse Electric Game, appear in two different stories.  Telephone Man describes his experience of an upset stomach at school and Johnny gets Peety to volunteer to wrestle Chris Allen, an accomplished female wrestle in one of the first matches of the season.

Angus Bethune is introduced for the first time as an obese young man who has divorced parents who both live with gay partners.  Angus has been picked king of the prom, but realizes it is a practical joke.  Never the less, he prepares to dance the spotlight dance with the queen, who he learns has emotional problems of her own.

In another wrestling story, Johnny must wrestle his dad who is physically and emotionally abusive to both Johnny and his mom.  When Johnny pins his dad in front of the school he must endure the humiliation of his dad slapping him.

REVIEW:  This is an excellent book for the reluctant reader to read.  The stories are short, but emotional and deal with issues that involve teens today.  After reading Athletic Shorts, I believe the reader would want to read more of Crutcher’s work.  Chris Crutcher is an author who realistically relates to young adult readers.

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

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: racial slurs (p. 133-154), AIDS and gay themes (p. 159-194)  

RELATED BOOKS: Running Loose, Stotan!, The Crazy Horse Electric Game, Chinese Handcuffs, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Ironman, Whale Talk


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 8, 2009

A Northern Light

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A Northern Light

Author: Jennifer Donnelly

Page Length: 386

Reading Level:  7

Genre:  Mystery, Romance, Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: The intelligent 16 year old girl, Mattie Gokey, secretly chooses a “word of the day” from a hidden dictionary. She is a bright student and aspires to finish high school, to go to college in New York, and to become a writer. However, in 1906 women were not expected to do such things. They were expected to marry, have babies, and take care of the house/farm. She uses her “word of the day” to escape the hardships she endures on a daily basis. Her father, despite the request of her teacher, refuses to let her entertain the thought of going to college. Due to the recent death of her mother, she must bare the burden of raising her sisters while her father struggles over his farm. Mattie, a self-proclaimed plain-girl, finds herself attracted to handsome Royal Loomis. To Mattie’s surprise, Royal is also attracted to her but he has no interest in reading books. He only has an interest in farming. Although she enjoys his company, they are polar opposites when it comes to obtaining fulfillment within a romantic relationship. The plot thickens when a guest at the Glenmore Hotel where Mattie works, Grace Brown, drowns. Earlier in the day, Grace had given Mattie a bundle of letters to burn. Mattie forgot about the letters and was too busy to burn them. Her curiosity got the better of her and she began to read them; ultimately inferring from the letters and piecing together the identity of Grace’s male guest that Grace may have been murdered. Does Mattie get to go to college or is she forced to marry Royal? Was Grace Brown really murdered? If so, who murdered her? Who was really her teacher? Does Mattie become a writer herself or is she trapped working on her father’s farm?  Does she keep her promise to her dead mother?

REVIEW: This book is a truly coming-of-age novel intertwined with romance, mystery, and history. The author through her words is able to evoke the emotions felt by Mattie as she grapples with life’s difficult choices. At a time in Mattie’s life when all she wants to do is read any book she can find and save money for college, she feels she must choose what is best for her family. Mattie is also haunted by the promise she made to her dying mother: that Mattie never leave her father and younger siblings. By reading Grace’s letters, Mattie finds her voice and a determination to live her own life. The many subplots throughout the story provide the reader with constant curiosity as to what is going to happen next. The reader finds oneself constantly asking the question, “What would I do, if I was in this situation?” Therefore, this thought provoking book leaves the reader with an unintentional examination of self.

AREAS FOR TEACHING:  setting, characterization, plot, theme, compare/contrast, cause/effect, point of view, inference, writer’s motive, voice, mood, and tone, word choice, audience and purpose

RELATED BOOKS:   An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser,  East by Edith Pattou, Just in Case by Meg Rosoff,  The Tailor’s Daughter: A Novel by Janice Graham,  A Great and Terrible Beauty (The Gemma Boyle Trilogy) by Libba Bray, Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor.  Books by the same author: A Gathering Light, The Tea Rose, Humble Pie, The Winter Rose

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: A Place in the Sun (1991), An American Tragedy (2007), October Sky (1999), Friday Night Lights (2004)


REVIEWED BY:  Tammy Leitzel

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