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January 1, 2011

What They Always Tell Us

What They Always Tell Us

Author: Martin Wilson

Page Length: 288

Reading Level: 4.8

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Career Connection: None

PLOT SUMMARY: James and Alex have grown up together as close siblings. People often considered them twins because they were similar in many ways. James and Alex are one grade level apart. The book takes the reader through an entire year of high school – James’ senior year and Alex’s junior year.

The school year begins with a big party at which time Alex chugs down a bottle of Pine Sol. He is rushed to the hospital where he fortunately recovers. However no one, not even his once close brother, knows why Alex attempted suicide.

Alex’s beginning junior year is filled with studying, visits to his therapist, and avoidance from former friends such as Tyler. Alex becomes an isolated homebody, a recluse.

James’ beginning senior year is filled with questions about his brother’s suicide attempt and daily “weird” behavior.

When James’ friend, Nathen, befriends Alex, Nathen encourages Alex to try out for the cross-country team. To prepare, Nathen and Alex begin a training workout together and develop a close friendship. At first, James is glad that his brother is out of the house and doing something “normal”. However, little does he know that the side activities that Nathen and Alex engage in are more intimate than mere cross-country teammates.

REVIEW: This is a beautifully written coming-of-age story for both Alex and James – two brothers that were once close and have now grown apart due to lack of communication. The reader will discover the character of Alex as one who is caught in the confusing maturation process during high school – cut off from his friends because he is “not acting like them” – not dating, not chasing girls. Alex’s cry for attention during his suicide attempt backfires for him as he experiences increased bullying from former friends. However, once James realizes his brother’s “true feelings”, the two grow closer together once more.

This is a great story of brotherly bonding. The story works because this is the central theme of the story – not the supplemental gay themes. However, both are intertwined. The gay relationship and intimate scenes between Nathen and Alex are maturely written in context of the plot.

Any male who has a brother struggling with a part of themselves as they mature will understand this story. This story contains characters with fresh voices. It is a book that is calmly written and one that will take many readers with siblings on a trip down memory lane.  

There is also an intriguing subplot in this story that deals with a young boy named Henry in search of his real father.

This book is written in third-person point-of-view. Odd-numbered chapters focus on Alex while even-numbered chapters focus on James.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: characterization, text to world, compare/contrast, prediction

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: there are several pages that list words such as “gay, faggot, queer”, a few scenes depict intimate scenes between two teenage males, and page 120 depicts one of those scenes

RELATED BOOKS: Crush by Carrie Mac, Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan, Big Guy by Robin Stevenson, Almost Perfect by Brian Katcher, Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde, Rage: A Love Story by Julie Anne Peters

RELATED WEBSITES: (GLBTQ book discussion guide) (author’s website) (podcast)

REVIEWED BY: K. Stratton


August 30, 2009

Buddha Boy

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Buddha Boy

Author: Kathe Koja

Page Length: 117

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Michael, also known as Jinsen, is the new kid in school. Only this new kid couldn’t stand out more in a rich school full of super jocks. Jinsen wears a big baggy peeling dragon shirt, shaves his head, and walks from table to table begging at lunch like a monk. Before long, he’s given the name Buddha Boy. He’s constantly picked on and ridiculed – hanging out with him is like committing social suicide. But Justin’s drawn to Jinsen’s outlook on life and his extreme talent an artist. The two become friends and Justin begins to discover Jinsen’s secret past. Bullies are constant looming, seeking to destroy Jinsen’s work and disrupt his indifference to their torture. Can Jinsen and Justin break the cycle of bullying before it is too late?

REVIEW: This is a wonderful book. The story relates some Buddhist principles about how everyone is like a God inside. Jinsen reveals his violent past and discusses why now he turns the other cheek – and how he too was once violent because he liked the way it made him feel.

I would highly recommend this book as a classroom read. It’s a wonderful opportunity to discuss bullying and the necessity for tolerating and understanding differences. It’s short – could be covered in a week or two in class – and carries an awesome message. The reader feels the pain and humiliation of Jinsen; we also share Justin’s rage and internal conflict at what he should do to aid his friend is also well expressed – the reader can feel the conflict within themselves and sense the gravity of the situation.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: cause and effect, author’s purpose, comparing and contrasting, character traits, conflict, and resolution

Full cast audio version is available

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: bullying and threat

RELATED BOOKS: Straydog, Exposure, Hit Squad, Crash, The Battle of Jericho


Metropolitan Museum of Art


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

October 30, 2008


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Author: Diane Tullson

Page Length: 103

Reading Level: 2.9

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: An emotionally unstable student is pushed over the edge by thoughtless classmates and brings a gun to school causing a real lockdown. Panic and chaos ensue as the students realize this is not just another drill. One student who feels he can help takes a risk, but the ending is still not a happy one.

REVIEW:  This book broke my heart. Josh, the student who brings the gun, cares and knows all about the hamsters in his science class. Some of the other kids want to see the new babies and disrupt the nest and touch the babies causing the mother hamster to reject them and eat them. It is just too much for Josh who is a bit naïve and socially out of things but truly cares about the animals. He loses it, brings the gun, taunts his classmates, but ultimately ends up shooting and killing himself. Like I said, it broke my heart.

 AREAS FOR TEACHING: Point of view, cause and effect

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: pages 13-15 in the science class, and the rest of the book during the lockdown – especially the final pages.


REVIEWED BY: Sherry Hall

April 2, 2008



Author: Laurie Halse Anderson

Page Length: 197

Reading Level: 7.1

REVIEW: Speak is the story of the chronological events of Melinda Sordino’s ninth grade year  at Merryweather High School  from  the first day of school until the last bell rings in May.  Melinda begins the year by being shunned by all of her friends because she busted an end of summer high school party by calling 911.  She can’t tell her friends or parents why she called the police;  and, as a result,  keeps her story inside her as she enters the halls of high school as an “outcast.”   

Laurie Anderson writes her first novel with vivid descriptions that kept me eager to read without stopping.  I especially liked the lists she had Melinda make.  The first list is on page 5 titled, “The First 10 Lies They Tell You in High School” and on page 148, the second list is “Ten More Lies They Tell You in High School.” 

As Melinda falls into a deep depression over the events of the party and her life as an outcast in high school, she begins speaking less and less.  She doesn’t verbally respond in class, to her classmates or parents.  On page 51 she realizes something is wrong. She says she has spastic laryngitis and wants to leave, transfer, and warp herself to another galaxy.  

Melinda’s parents are caught up in their own jobs with little notice of Melinda’s problems.  When they are called to the school for her lack of attendance and downward spiraling grades, they deal with it by yelling at each other. On page 70, Melinda’s thoughts are that she feels she was a big disappointment to them and they would all be better off if they just split the money and all went about life on their own. At Christmas, she tries to tell her parent’s about the incident at the party but she freezes and can’t speak.  Both of her parents leave the room. 

Melinda does have one friend, Heather, a new girl in town who doesn’t know about Melinda’s “snitching” at the party.  Heather is desperate to make friends and to belong to a club or organization.  Melinda, however, can’t communicate her problems even to Heather and eventually Heather begins to shun her, too.   

As the school year proceeds, Melinda makes a vague attempt at suicide by cutting her wrists with a paperclip.  Her mom reacts by saying, “I don’t have time for this Melinda.”  Melinda does find some comfort in her Art class with her teacher, Mr. Freeman.  He is experiencing some difficulties with the school board and I think she relates to him for this reason. She works hard to complete her art assignment which is making a tree “come to life”.  However, this is equally hard. 

Any form of communication is hard for Melinda.  She talks briefly to her biology lab partner, David Petrakis.  And an old friend, Ivy, makes idol conversation with her about her art. It is not until Rachel, her former “best” friend, begins talking to one of the senior boys that Melinda realizes she must be honest and tell somebody what happened the night of the party.   

I enjoyed this book and think it would be a good novel for a class to read and discuss.  There are many issues that relate to our teens of today. A movie has been made of the book but I have not seen it.  At the end of the book, there is a question and answer section with the author.  She also writes a quick read about censorship. 



REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

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