The Book Reviews – Website

January 1, 2011

Here Today


Here Today

Author: Ann M. Martin

Page Length: 308

Reading Level: 5


Genre: Fiction


Career Connections: Teacher, Model, Construction  

PLOT SUMMARY: Living on Witch Street in 1963 with a mother who dreams of being an actress is not the ideal life Ellie Dingman would ask for, but she appears to deal with her circumstances in a very mature manner for a sixth grader. While her mother Doris participates in community plays and takes dance lessons, Ellie makes sure her little brother and sister, Albert and Marie are fed and nurtured.  It is after the assassination of JFK, that Ellie sees her family unit beginning to dissolve.

The inhabitants of Witch Street are ridiculed by the home townspeople.  The children are of Jewish descent and are raised by an unwed mother. Ellie’s mother is an eccentric model/actress.  There are also two unrelated women who live together who are accused of being “lesbians”.  The children are hazed daily on their bus ride to school and frequent malicious incidents happen in the neighborhood.

Unaware of these events, Doris Day Dingman, searches for her identity while abandoning her husband and children.  Desperate to see her mother, Ellie uses her savings to travel to New York City to find out where her mother is living and working.  Ellie discovers that her mother has taken a job at a department store and lives in a small one room apartment.

Upon her return home, Ellie begins to stand up for not only herself but for her family and neighborhood.

REVIEW: Set in 1963, the book was interesting for me to read as I could relate to the exact time of JFK’s assassination and the feelings of the country that are reflected.  The story is tragic in that it characterizes a mother who seeks her own wants and needs rather than those of her family. Also, the ridicule and humiliation the children endure at school is cruel.  However, Ellie’s character rises above all the hurt to help her family and friends overcome obstacles.

There is an interesting Afterward in the back of the book.  I believe teen girls would enjoy this book, as well as, any women who remember the year of 1963.


AREAS OF TEACHING: Historical Context, Setting, Character, Cause/Effect, Compare/Contrast, and Conflict

RELATED BOOKS: So B. It, Becoming Naomi Leon, The Center of Everything


MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Soft Fruit (1999), This Boy’s Life (1993), JFK (1991)

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner


December 19, 2010


Luna by Julie Anne Peters: Book Cover



Author: Julie Anne Peters


Page Length: 248


Reading Level: 6


Genre: Fiction         

PLOT SUMMARY: Regan awakens to the sounds of Luna, her sister/brother, carousing through her room—applying make-up and trying on clothes.  Liam, Regan’s older brother by day, is a transsexual (a girl in a boy’s body).  However, this is a secret between the two siblings.  By day, Liam, a handsome, academic genius, is one of the most sought after boys at school.  By night, he addresses himself and has Regan also refer to him as “Luna”, as he steps into his female role.

As Regan struggles to cover for Liam’s/Luna’s strange behaviors and lack of desire to compete on the school’s baseball team, she also struggles through her classes at school that Liam often causes her to miss.  Besides having a girl for a brother, Regan’s parents are also dysfunctional.  Her dad lost his manager’s job at Sears and has had to take a menial job at Home Depot.  Her mother is a wedding planner, who pops pills throughout the day.

Regan tries to have a normal life at school, and becomes interested in Chris, who is her chemistry partner.  However, when Liam decides he is going to “come out” and have a sex change, Regan can concentrate only on Liam’s actions, and how his parent’s and his long-time friend, Aly, will react to Liam’s decision.

Throughout the book, Regan has flashbacks trying to figure out exactly when she knew Liam was a girl in a boy’s body.  She finally realizes that she knew a long time before he actually admitted it to her.  When Liam finally appears in make-up and girl’s clothing to his parent’s, Regan realizes that her mother has always known about Liam and did not do anything to help him. Regan also learns that Chris knows about Liam, and has no problem with accepting Liam as he is. 

After years of fighting Liam in his decision to “come out” and have a sex change, Regan learns that he will be happier and, better still, so will she as Liam lives his life as “Luna”. 

REVIEW: The subject of transsexuals in a high school book is a bit edgy and controversial.  However, this book was written from Regan’s point of view and is realistically presented in how a sibling may deal with this situation. 

This book could be used in a study of diversity and tolerance. Julie Anne Peter’s approaches controversial subjects in the way that young adults perceive them, which makes her books appropriate to read.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: transsexuality is the theme of the book, there is also some mild profanity

AREAS OF TEACHING: Character, Compare/Contrast, Point of View and Theme

RELATED BOOKS: Define “Normal”, Keeping You a Secret, Far from Xanadu, and Between Mom and Jo

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: The Bond (2007, documentary), Just Call Me Kade (2001, documentary)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Just Another Hero

Just Another Hero by Sharon M. Draper: Book Cover

Just Another Hero


Author: Sharon M. Draper


Page Length: 280


Reading Level: 4.3


Genre: Fiction


Career Connection: Teacher, police officer, fast food/retail sales


PLOT SUMMARY: A senior year filled with drama is what the small group of friends of Douglass High encounter after they cope with Josh’s death from a hazing accident and the birth of his baby by November.


Arielle, who has struggled with peer relations, since the hazing event, finds a way to mend the fences with Kofi and the rest of the group, but she is living with her third stepfather who is extremely strict and controlling with she and her mother. She not only has lost her real dad but her sister has been placed in an institution. Her mother is bound within the wants and needs of her stepfather. No wonder she has a problem with day to day coping skills.


Kofi continues to feel pain from his broken arm that was injured in the hazing event and realizes he is addicted to pain killers. He qualifies for admission into Massachusetts Institute of Technology but sees his parents squandering away their money. What does he do to help his family and himself?


November has returned to school after the birth of her baby, but finds she has many responsibilities that make school issues take a backseat.


While each member of the group try to find coping skills for their various needs, someone is stealing money and personal property at school.


Meanwhile, Crazy Jack suffers a mental breakdown and brings an assault rifle to school. The discovery of the thief and Jack holding student’s hostage, takes a toll on the main characters as they try to determine what makes a real hero.


REVIEW: This is the final book of the trilogy of the student’s of Douglass High that Sharon Draper has developed. The book is written in third person narrative between Kofi and Arielle as the plot centers primarily on their life issues. Students who have read the previous books, The Battle of Jericho and November Blues will enjoy this final chapter of Arielle, Kofi, November, and Jericho as they answer the question, “What Makes a Real Hero?”


AREAS FOR TEACHING: Characters, Cause/Effect, Sequence of Events, Theme


TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: None that is not age appropriate


RELATED BOOKS: The Battle of Jericho, November Blues




REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

A Corner of the Universe

A Corner of the Universe by Ann Martin: Book Cover

A Corner of the Universe

Author: Ann M. Martin

Page Length: 189

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

Career Connections: None         

PLOT SUMMARY: It is summertime in Millerton, and Hattie plans on spending it with her family and the adult residents of her parent’s boarding house.  She also has acquaintances she likes to visit throughout the town, but none of them are her age. The summer is fairly normal until Hattie meets her Uncle Adam who has returned to her wealthy grandparent’s house because the school he was attending closed.

Hattie had never heard of Adam, who is 21 years old.  She realizes that her mother and grandparents have not told her about him because he has mental challenges.  Adam quotes lines from “I Love Lucy” and sometimes has erratic behavior, but Hattie bonds with him and they spend many afternoons together.

When the carnival comes to town, Hattie meets Leila, daughter of the couple who own and operate the carnival.  Hattie’s grandmother will not allow Adam to go to the carnival, so Hattie encourages Adam to sneak out of his house one evening and meet her there.  Adam is intrigued with the Ferris Wheel but when he gets stuck at the top with Hattie and Leila, a disaster occurs. Hattie and Adam are both grounded and by the time Hattie is allowed to leave her house again, the carnival has left town.  As Hattie mourns the loss of her one friend in town, she observes that Adam is intrigued with Angel Valentine, a beautiful young woman who lives at the boarding house.

When Adam comes to visit Angel and finds her in bed with her boyfriend, another disaster occurs.  Hattie is required to grow up quickly and deal with some of life’s hardest lessons at a very early age.

REVIEW: The characters have vivid personalities and the small town setting of the 1960’s is authentically described.  The social practices of Hattie’s parents and grandparents, as well as, the townspeople are an accurate account of the times.

This would be an excellent book to read as a class novel for discussions about family, peer, and social relationships.


AREAS OF TEACHING: Character, Conclusion, Generalizations, and Predictions, Compare/Contrast, Conflict

RELATED BOOKS: Esperanza Rising, Becoming Naomi Leon, So B. It, The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night, Marcelo in the Real World, Here Today


MUSIC CONNECTIONS: Rain Man (1988), Mozart and the Whale (2005), Snow Cake (2006), Autism the Musical (2008), and I am Sam (2001)

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 23, 2008

Becoming Naomi Leon

Becoming Namoi Leon

Author:  Pam Munoz Ryan

Page Length: 246

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction        

PLOT SUMMARY: Naomi and Owen live with their Gram in a trailer park in Southern California.  The two children have lived with Gram for the past seven years, after their mother abandon them and their father moved to Mexico.  Everything was fine, until Skyla, their mom turned up at the trailer one autumn day. 

Skyla, brought presents for Naomi and braided her hair in a French braid.  She had a new boyfriend, Clive, and shared that they planned to move to Las Vegas after he went through his “tattoo training school.” Their plan was to take Naomi and get custody of his daughter.

This plan was totally unacceptable to Gram, Owen, and Naomi because they new that Skyla had been in drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and was drinking again.  They did not want their family of the past seven years to be separated.  When Skyla threatens to get custody through the court, Gram makes several calls and two weeks before Christmas break, the neighbors and Gram, Owen, and Naomi leave in the trailer and head for Mexico to find the children’s father.

REVIEW: This is an excellent well-written book for all ages. Females would probably enjoy it more, but I think it would be a great book for a class novel.  Ryan does an excellent job of developing each of the characters and the setting. She vividly creates life in the trailer park and also in Mexico during the Christmas season.

At the back of the book, there is a section about the author, a question and answer section with the author, a history of the radish carving festival and a section on collective nouns, which Ryan uses to name each of the chapters.

I would list this as one of my favorites of young adult novels.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Sequence of Events, Characters, Setting, Conflict. Conclusions, Generalizations and Predictions, Collective Nouns

RELATED BOOKS: Esperanza Rising


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 11, 2008

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night

Author: Mark Haddon      

Page Length: 226

Reading Level: 8

Genre: Fiction        

PLOT SUMMARY: Christopher John Frances Boone narrated the story.  As it begins, Christopher has just discovered Ms. Shear’s dog, Wellington, dead in her yard.  Christopher, then, introduces himself to the reader stating that he knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and also, every prime number up to 7057.

The reader will note that the chapters in the book are numbered by prime numbers because Christopher prefers prime numbers to ordinal numbers. Christopher continues the story as he explains the events of the rest of the night in which he was taken to jail on suspicion of killing the dog.  In addition, he writes about his thought processes, his visits with Siobhan, and his relationship with his father and the death of this mother.

Christopher cannot let the death of Wellington go unsolved.  He questions neighbors, Ms. Shears, and his father to see if they might be able to help solve the mystery, but no one has any answers.  When Christopher’s father reads his book and learns of his investigation, he becomes angry and starts shouting at Chris.  The next day Chris can’t find his book.  He looks for it everywhere and when he enters his dad’s room to search, he finds evidence that his dad has not been truthful with him about his mother’s death.

A new investigation begins . . . 

REVIEW:  After reading the first two chapters of the book, it is easy to detect that Christopher is not a normal 15-year-old boy.  He is extremely intelligent, but has very low social and communication skills.  He has a very typical personality of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of Autism).

I found this book not only entertaining and intriguing, but very informative of the characteristics of Asperger’s.  Because of the reading level, it may be too difficult for the typical student in a resource class, but for those who do have high reading levels, I think they would enjoy and relate to Christopher.  It is a great book for teacher’s to read.  It helps one understand the behaviors and thought processes of a child with this disease.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Character, Sequence of Events, Conflict, and Setting

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Strong Language p. 81-81, 127, 160,184

RELATED BOOKS: One Child, Thinking in Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life with Autism, A Spot of Bother

RELATED WEBSITES:…/The_Curious_Incident_of_the_Dog_in_the_Night-time

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 10, 2008

Max the Mighty

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Max the Mighty

Author: Rodman Philbrick

Page Length: 166

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: It has been a year since Kevin, Max’s best friend, passed away.  Max is, again, living a lonely life until he sees some boys harassing an 11-year-old girl.  Because of his size, not his demeanor, he scares the boys away, and becomes the hero of Rachel.  Rachel has the nickname of “Worm” because she always has her face in a book.

Worm and Max meet for the second time in the park.  Her mother is wary of Max because of his large size.  After Worm assures her mother that Max is “okay”, her stepfather, the Undertaker drives by and forces Worm and her mom to get in the car with him.  Worm runs back to Max and hands him one of her books, which has her home address in it.  Now, Worm is suspicious.  The Undertaker dresses in black and goes around the town shouting that he is from God and he knows the “Truth”. 

Reluctantly, Max walks to Worm’s house in the address.  There, he witnesses the Undertaker physically abusing Worm’s mom.  He loses control, and bursts through the house, taking Worm away.  This seems like a heroic move, but Max is accused of kidnapping and assault by the Undertaker and is now a fugitive.

Worm convinces Max that if she can just get to Chivalry, Montana, her real dad will be able to help her get away from the Undertaker.  So the twosome, Max the Mighty and Worm, start for Montana.  On their trip, they encounter several colorful characters and build a bond of friendship. 

REVIEW: Rodman Philbrick does an excellent job of writing in the sequel to Freak the Mighty.  He presents new, colorful characters and expands Max’s character into one with more confidence after the passing of Kevin. 

The theme that is developed is one of truth and is used by The Undertaker, Max and Worm (p. 18, 23, 23, 71, 79, 83, and 166). He, also, gives great descriptions of his characters and their dialogues.  It is very easy for the reader to visualize these characters and also the various settings visited as Max and Worm travel across the United States.

This is another book that I would recommend for all ages. 

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Sequence of Events, Theme, Character, Conflict, Setting

RELATED BOOKS: Freak the Mighty, Maniac Mc Gee, Walk Two Moons, Others See Us

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: “The Mighty” (1998)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

April 15, 2008

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things

Author: Carolyn Mackler

Page Length: 244  

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Teen Fiction/Humor/Drama

PLOT SUMMARY:  Virginia Shreves is an overweight high school girl, named for Virginia Woolf.  Her family is dysfunctional, but her mom, an adolescent psychologist, wants the world to believe they have the “perfect” family.  Virginia’s older sister has graduated from college and joined the Peace Corps.  Byron is her older brother who she idealizes.  He attends Columbia University.  Her father is a prominent businessman who is rarely home.  Besides being a doctor, her mom is also a health nut.  Virginia is not only overweight, but a loner, since her best friend moved to Seattle for a year. 

As the book opens, Virginia is experiencing her first boy/girl relationship, which is a make-out session every Monday afternoon with Froggy Welsh the 4th.    Virginia does not feel apart of her family or school.  She tries to please her parents by dieting and finds refuge in one of the teacher’s classrooms during lunch so that she doesn’t have to eat alone.  One night in a rare visit with her dad, the phone rings and the Shreve’s’ learn that Byron, the all-star stud, has been dismissed from Columbia for date rape.

For the remainder of the book, Virginia copes with her brother’s mistake, her parents approach to dealing with family problems, and looking at herself as an individual important human being.

REVIEW: Virginia feels she is inferior to the entire world, but learns that sometimes people aren’t quite as special and perfect as we imagine.  She then realizes by making some independent and aggressive decisions, she can redefine herself. 

I enjoyed this book a lot.  Although the title is catchy and humorous, the contents of the book cover serious teen issues.  I found myself thinking of several students and family members who could relate experiences to the different characters in the book. 

The reader can easily empathize with Virginia in  the way that her family treats her.  I would suggest this book for high school age girls and older.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Characterization

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: pgs. 2-6 (make-out scene), pgs. 57-59, 96-98, 155- 159, and 197 (date rape and strong language)

RELATED BOOKS: What My Bother Doesn’t Know, Speak, The Truth About Forever, The First Part Last


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

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