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January 1, 2011

The People of Sparks

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The People of Sparks

Author: Jeanne DuPrau

Page Length: 154

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: In this sequel to The City of Ember, Lina and Doon lead the residents of the underground into the village of Sparks.  They are a surprise to the people of Sparks but are housed, fed and taught to live off the land.  Conflicts between the two communities begin to occur because of lack of supplies.  The people of Ember are used to a life with electricity and comforts of the world before the Disaster.  The people of Sparks are accustomed to providing for themselves.

As the book progresses, Doon is intrigued by the one of the leaders of the underground people, Tick.  He is aggressive and wants to overtake the people of Sparks.  Doon finds it hard to follow Tick’s military style of leadership.

Lina leaves with the brother of the family she is staying with to explore the unknown area of the disaster.  The journey is more than she had thought she would encounter and she eventually makes her way back to the village. 

She finds Doon and together, they again try to save their people.

REVIEW: The characters are well-developed as well as the theme of this futuristic fiction novel. Young teens who enjoyed The Hunger Games and The Giver would like this book, too.


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

RELATED BOOKS: Book of Ember, The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, The Giver, and Gathering Blue


MOVIE CONNECTIONS: The City of Ember (2008)

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

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

Learning to Fly

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Learning to Fly by Paul Yee: Book Cover

Learning to Fly

Author: Paul Yee

Page Length: 107


Reading Level: 3.34


Genre: Fiction


Career Connections: none         

PLOT SUMMARY: Jason is the only Chinese student at the high school in the small town where his mother has opened a deli.  Students make fun of him at school and when he is working at the deli.  He and his mother moved to the United States from China two years after his father had immigrated.  Little did his mother know that his father was having an affair and would leave them as soon as they arrived in the United States.  Jason hates the U. S. but cannot return to China because his mother would have no one to help her.

After witnessing a police chase in the mall, Jason becomes friends with Chief, a Native American student who attends his high school.  Because Chief and his friends smoke marijuana, Jason decides to join them. Jason takes money from his mother to buy pot for him and his new friends. When their supplier gets busted, Jason gets a call to buy a large quantity of pot for the group.  That night, he realizes he was “set up” and is busted by the police. 

Jason feels all alone, but when Chief’s sister dies from an overdose, he realizes that he is not alone in feeling like an outsider and reaches out as a friend to the only other non-white boy in town, Chief.

REVIEW: Many of our low level reading students are those who are immigrants from other countries. I believe this would be a good book for students to read who feel discriminated against.  The events of the book show what students will participate in (many activities legal or illegal) just to be accepted by someone or some group.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: profanity (pp. 83), marijuana and drug use

AREAS OF TEACHING: Characterization, Setting, Compare/Contrast

RELATED BOOKS: To Kill a Mockingbird, Romiette and Julio, and The Hoopster


MUSIC, MOVIE, AND ART CONNECTIONS: Remember the Titans (2002), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Gran Torino (2008)

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Stoner and Spaz

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Stoner and Spaz by Ron Koertge: Book Cover

Stoner and Spaz

Author: Ron Koertge

Page Length: 169

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Ben Bancroft has become accustomed to having a hidden life. Living with his over protective grandmother and being disabled by cerebral palsy, he’s always shied away from any attention. After all, who wants to be known as a spaz by everyone (just like in the junior assembly when the principal pointed out how different he was to the entire school).

But Ben’s life is due for change even if it’s in the form of Colleen Minou, a druggie who sleeps around. Ben and Colleen forge an unlikely friendship and both their lives begin to change.

REVIEW: Ben’s transformation from being totally self-absorbed and feeling sorry for himself to a young man who sees beyond his disability and begins to connect with others is wonderful. The story makes an excellent point about disabilities and perceptions and conclusions that people all too easily jump to. 

On the other hand, Colleen’s life style is harsh and maybe too graphic. The constant drug references and her using sex as a means of satisfying her addiction and manipulating people to get what she wants – requires that the book reader be mature enough to understand the consequences and effect. I would not read this book with a class.

The good points are well made through Ben’s filming of fellow classmates. He breaks through the social perceptions of misfits and shows the beauty of humanity. The realities of drug abuse and the cost to the user are also detailed making the book a realistic look the horrifying effects of drugs – students could examine the costs to Colleen’s life.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: cause and effect, author’s purpose, comparing and contrasting (Ben before he looked outside himself and Ben after)

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Colleen recounts the night her mom’s boyfriend came into her bedroom and started rubbing her – then she notes after telling her mom who accused her of trying to ruin her (her mother’s) happiness – “I’m fucking ten years old, and I’m on my own”  (70).

Colleen use of drug – smoking a joint. “I snort a little coke” (71).

“She grabs the condom, tears the foil with her teeth, then puts it on with alarming dexterity” (152).

RELATED BOOKS: Fat Kids Rule the World, You Don’t Know Me, The Brimstone Journals, Gingerbread, The Beast, Angel Dust Blues


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

June 5, 2010

Romiette and Julio

Romiette and Julio

Author: Sharon M. Draper

Page Length: 320

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Romantic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Romiette and Julio begins with a strange recurring dream about drowning and a male voice that Romiette Cappelle is having. She is terrified of water and cannot swim.  Julio Montague, 17 years old, is forced to move from Corpus Christi, Texas to Cincinnati, Ohio. He hates Ohio. Everything is gray and there is no where to swim. Julio is an excellent swimmer and loves to swim. The only companionship he has is with a girl he has met in the chat room. Come to find out this girl, Romiette, whom he shares a great deal in common, goes to the same Ohio school. On the first day of school Julio meets Ben during a fight. Ben is a quirky, lighthearted character who changes his hair color everyday. Romiette’s best friend is Destiny who is also quirky and thinks she is psychic. As Romi and Julio’s online friendship develops, they decide to meet in person. Julio and Romi immediately feel a strong attraction to one another. Julio brings with him a bottle of hot sauce and a rose to their first meeting. As they start hanging out together more often, the school gang, the Devildogs or “The Family” begin to threaten Romi and Julio just because Romi is African American and Julio is Hispanic. Also, Romi’s parents do not approve of Julio because he is Hispanic and Julio’s parents do not approve of Romi because she is African American. The gang intensifies their threats which force Romi, Julio, Destiny, and Ben to devise a plan to obtain proof that the gang exists and is threatening them. However, the plan goes horribly wrong. The gang has a plan of their own. They capture Romi and Julio leaving them helpless, tied up, and unconscious in a boat floating in London Woods Lake during a severe thunderstorm. What happens to Romi and Julio? Whose voice was in the dream? What happens to Destiny and Ben? Does the police and search party rescue them in time or is their fate sealed as in Romeo and Juliet?        

REVIEW:  Romiette and Julio is a present day Romeo and Juliet without the tragic ending. Reader’s still experience the themes of friendship, romance, suspense, love, prejudice, racism, and familial pressures exemplified within Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. However, in Romiette and Julio, Sharon Draper allows the reader to identify with the themes in a modern day setting even allowing Romiette and Julio to meet in a chat room. A strong affection develops which leads to gang threats due only to the fact that Romiette is African American and Julio is Hispanic; thus, suspense ensues. Romiette and Julio is a definite supplement for the classic, Romeo and Juliet.  Readers can identify with many themes throughout the book whether it is racism, peer pressure, romance, or soul mates.   

AREAS FOR TEACHING: main idea and supporting details, theme, setting, characters, point of view, conflict, plot, compare/contrast, cause/effect, sequence of events, inference, conclusions, generalizations, predictions, voice, mood, tone,  5 steps of the writing process, allusion, protagonist, antagonist, comic relief

RELATED BOOKS:  Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet in Beverly Hills (Readers Theater), The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, The First Part Last by Angela Johnson,  Who Am I Without Him? By Sharon Flake, Books by same author: Tears of a Tiger, Forged be Fire, The Battle of Jericho, Copper Sun, November Blues, Darkness Before Dawn, Double Dutch, Fire by the Rock

MOVIE CONNECTIONS:  Westside Story (1950), Romeo and Juliet (1996), Romeo and Juliet (1968), Gone With the Wind (1939), The Notebook (2004), The Outsiders (1983)

MUSIC CONNECTION: Love Story by Taylor Swift

RELATED WEBSITES:  (secure chat room suggested by the technology department)

REVIEWED BY: Tammy Leitzel

January 18, 2009

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Author: Mildred Taylor

Page Length: 276

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Realistic Fiction     

PLOT SUMMARY: The story begins with Cassie Logan and her brothers walking to school. Although they are young children, they are aware of the different ways whites and blacks are treated.  Being Negroes, they must walk to school, while the white children ride a bus. Their schoolbooks are worn, discarded rejects from the white children’s school. They even become the subjects of jokes when the bus driver deliberately splashes them with mud as he drives the white children to school.

As the events of the book unfold, repeated incidents of racism are witnessed at school and in the community.  The Logan family lives in fear of the Ku Klux Klan ,but with the influence of Big Ma, Mama, and Papa they cling together to protect the 400 acres they call “their land.”

REVIEW: Many of the events and themes of the story are adult in nature, but Cassie, a fourth grader, tells the book in narrative form. The children must witness their mother being fired as a teacher, grown men being tarred and feathered, and a rebellious friend, T. J., accused of murder.  They learn the viciousness that prejudicial feelings of racism bring. Through the violence, Cassie realizes the importance of family and why “the land” is an endearment they must protect.

This is an awesome book I would recommend it for reading as a class novel.  The character development and setting are excellently described, as well as the drama in the sequence of events.  It is a great book to read in conjunction with a Civil Rights Movement theme.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Compare/Contrast, Conflict, Characters, Setting, Theme, and Cause/Effect

RELATED BOOKS: The Land, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, A Time to Kill, To Kill a Mockingbird

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


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

December 12, 2008


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Author: Karen Hesse

Page Length: 161

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Realistic Fiction written in Verse

PLOT SUMMARY: The setting of the story is in Vermont, in 1924.  Ten characters of the small community tell the story in verse.  It is the story of two young girls, Leanora, an African American whose mother has died, and Esther who is Jewish.  Neither is welcome in the community anymore because it has fallen under the influence of the Ku Klux Klan.  The other characters range in age from teen-ager to middle 60’s.  Some of the characters refuse to join the Klan and others become active.  With the Klan growing, violence increases.  However, the community eventually pulls together to find hope and redemption.

REVIEW: The setting of the story surprised me, in that, I was not aware the Ku Klux Klan was active in the North.  The story is told in verse, and could be read aloud as a play. The characters are vivid not only in their descriptions but also in their actions.  Each of them distinctly reflects a response that would be typical of real life when an influential association infiltrates a community.  Although set in the early 1900’s, this would be a good novel to study in conjunction with study of Hitler’s influence over the Nazi party and the Civil Rights Movement in America.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Some violence but it correlates with the theme of the book.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Verse writing, Theme, Conflict, Historical Context, Setting, and Character

RELATED BOOKS: To Kill a Mockingbird, A Time to Kill

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), A Time to Kill (1996)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

December 7, 2008

Wrestling Sturbridge

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Wrestling Sturbridge

Author: Rich Wallace

Page Length: 133

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Have you ever wanted something so bad you can almost taste it? Victory seems so close but it’s just out of reach? Benny is a member of the championship Sturbridge wrestling team. He wants to so badly to win state. The problem is that his friend Al is number one and no matter how hard he tries he just can’t seem to beat him. But Benny never gives up. Every challenge match he has, he tries to outdo Al. He can feel the drive and he’s determined to win. Can he out match Al? Will the coach even see his true talent before it’s too late?

REVIEW: For wrestling fans, this book is a must. For the rest of us, it’s still an interesting read because there is more depth to the story than just a wrestling match. Victory in wrestling symbolizes Benny’s victories over his life and insecurities. The book also details a mild romance between Kim and Benny and deals lightly with the fact that they are from two different races. I was a little confused by the dad’s habit of stealing things — it’s just almost seemed out of place and totally unnecessary for the book. Overall, the book is compact and the action of preparing for the next big match keeps the reader turning the page. The short descriptive facts between chapters also help the reader get to know Benny better (it develops a kinship with the reader almost as if he is revealing secrets about himself that no one else knows).

AREAS FOR TEACHING: sequence, author’s purpose, character motivations, point of view (Grandma about Kim), cause and effect

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: some mild race issues, under-age drinking, mild sexual references

RELATED BOOKS: Playing Without the Ball, The Roar of the Crowd, Losing Is Not an Option, Perpetual Check, One Good Punch, Emergency Quarterback 



REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

November 3, 2008


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Author: Norah McClintock

Page Length: 103

Reading Level: 3.2

Genre: Fiction         

PLOT SUMMARY: Remy has just been released from a nine month stay at a juvenile correction facility for assaulting a man who insulted his girlfriend.   While in jail, he did not return letters to his family or girlfriend.  Upon his release, he finds his mother and sister treating him like a criminal.  His girlfriend, Asia, has a new boyfriend, Marcus.   Marcus and his friends are in a rivalry with some of Remy’s friends from school.   Asia knows that Marcus has a knife and wants Remy to talk to him-to warn him what can happen in reality.  Remy is suffering from a lot of anger.  He has to learn to control it and to cope with the people in his surroundings.

REVIEW: Norah McClintock has written another suspenseful book for the reluctant reader.  I thought the book was good because it deals with prejudice, peer pressure, romantic and family issues, and violence.  All of these subjects are matters of pressure that high school students must face each day. 

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Marijuana use and some profanity but it is not inappropriate for the high school audience. 

AREAS OF TEACHING: Point of View, Conflict, and Cause/Effect

RELATED BOOKS: Bang, Marked, Snitch, Tell

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Gridiron Gang (2006), Stomp the Yard (2006)

RELATED WEBSITES:…/TeachersGuides/Orca Soundings/DownTG.pdf

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

October 17, 2008

The Great Gilly Hopkins

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The Great Gilly Hopkins

Author: Katherine Paterson

Page Length: 148

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Galadriel Hopkins, or Gilly, is on the move again to yet another foster home. Gilly could really care less. She’s in control and she can get rid of this one too. Who wants to live in a house with some small dumb boy and old ratchet woman anyway? 

Gilly can’t believe the new place she’s been sent to by her social worker. Even worse than her foster home is the fact that she has a “colored” neighbor and a “colored” teacher. Gilly dreams about her beautiful mother and just knows that one day she will sweep in and rescue her. Gilly begins to learn that things are not always as they seem or even as she might hope they would be. But, with every cloud there is a silver lining even for Galadriel Hopkins.

REVIEW: I enjoyed reading this story. The reader empathizes with Gilly’s situation and even sees right through her tough girl act. Paterson does a brilliant job will all of the characters. The reader develops relationships with the characters as Gilly does. We even share Gilly’s disappointment in her mother. This book is a very touching and seemingly authentic account of what life might be like for a foster child. Recommended read!

AREAS FOR TEACHING: cause and effect, anticipation reaction guide, sequence, compare and contrast text to self

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: emotions of being a foster child

RELATED BOOKS: Jacob Have I Loved, Jip: His Story, The King’s Equal, Bridge to Terabithia


RELATED MOVIES: “Annie,” “The Little Princess,” “Angels in the Outfield”


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

September 21, 2008

Project Mulberry

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Project Mulberry

Author: Linda Sue Park

Page Length: 217

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Julia and her best friend Patrick are in The Wiggle Club after school. The Wiggle Club teaches them about farming and animal care. Since, Patrick and Julia are hoping to win first prize at the state fair, they have to come up with a great project idea. The two decide to raise silkworms even though they both have secret reasons for not wanting to – neither one tells the other. They discover that raising silkworms is more challenging than it seemed. Through the adventure, they make new friends, overcome prejudices, and learn more about themselves and each other along the way. Can they pull the project together in time to win at the fair?

REVIEW: This story was entertaining and informative about agricultural pursuits and appreciation for the struggles of the American farmer. In addition, the story is eye-opening about prejudice everywhere – the elderly African-American gentlemen assumes the girl is white and then we he meets her, mistakes Korean for Chinese. The mother is portrayed as being prejudiced against black people. The kids overcome all of the barriers and simply see people for who they are.

The story might be more interesting to junior high and 6th grade students as it lacks typical teen appeal.

An interesting aspect of this book is that in between the chapters the author dialogues with the main character. These chats teach the reader about the writing process and how Park developed her characters and allowed the story to evolve along the way.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: main idea, author’s purpose, making predictions, cause and effect, chronological ordering, theme, plot, setting, characters

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: racial tensions and prejudice

RELATED BOOKS: A Single Shard, The Archer’s Quest, Keeping Score, The Kite Fighters, Click, Seesaw Girl


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

August 23, 2008

Promises to Keep

Promises to Keep

Author: Sharon Robinson          

Page Length: 64

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Biography 

PLOT SUMMARY:  Sharon Robinson, daughter of Jackie Robinson, writes a narrative biography of her father’s life.  She begins with a brief history of the beginning of America and how it was a black and white world. 

She goes on to tell of how the view of the people of the United States changed over the next 200 years towards African Americans.  She includes in the text, the changes her dad experienced during his life as the first African American to play major league baseball. She tells of the struggles he went through to break the “ Jim Crow Barrier”. Also, she includes descriptions of her parent’s relationship, their family life, and life after Jackie’s career as a baseball player.

She tells of the fight for equal rights that her father was very active in during the l960’s and how he promised to help change life for the African American people of the United States.

REVIEW: This is the third and best biography I have read about Jackie Robinson.  I enjoyed the narrative form of writing that Sharon Robinson used.  Also, included, were excellent photographs, which chronicled Jackie’s life and events that have occurred after his death which celebrate the great man he was.

I think this is an excellent book for boys and girls who like baseball to read.  Also, it is a good book for those who are interested in the Civil Rights movement to read because Jackie Robinson was an advocate for Civil Rights in his years after baseball.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Sequence of Events, Character, Compare/Contrast, and Cause and Effect

RELATED BOOKS: Stealing Home: The Story of Jackie Robinson, Jackie’s Nine

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: The Jackie Robinson Story, Brain Pops: A Social Studies Movie about Jackie Robinson, Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown


 REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 12, 2008

Hank Aaron Brave in Every Way

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Hank Aaron Brave in Every Way

Author: Peter Golenbock

Illustrator:  Paul Lee         

Page Length: 32

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Biography 

PLOT SUMMARY:  Hank Aaron was born on February 5, 1934 to two loving parents.  His father had visions for him to play baseball, his mother wanted him to make a difference in the world.  The story is about Hank’s childhood, is beginning in league baseball, and his professional career.

REVIEW:  This is a short, easy to read, nicely illustrated book of Hank Aaron’s life.  I enjoyed it because it presented a different side of an African American family in the early 1900’s.  Although poor, Hank was able to get an education, have hope and pursue dreams.  He did experience some racial ridicule as broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, but his praise and support from the rest of the world completely outweighed the bad.

This is a good book for the reluctant reader who enjoys sports because it is short.  However, there is enough information where a concise report could be written about Hank Aaron’s life.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Sequence of Events, Main Idea and Supporting Details

RELATED BOOKS: Jackie’s Nine, Shoeless Joe and Black Betsy, Stealing Home: The Story of Jackie Robinson, When Willard Met Babe Ruth


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

June 2, 2008

Yellow Line

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The Yellow Line

Author: Sylvia Olsen

Page Length: 107

Reading Level: 2.4

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Vince lives in a small town divided by a yellow line. Indians stay one side of the town (and the street) and whites stay on another. Despite the fact these students ride the bus and are schooled together, racial tensions prevail everywhere. Vince becomes involved when his cousin Sherry begins dating one of the “other kind.” Vince’s parents are enraged and want Vince to tell Sherry’s parents what he’s seen. Vince himself is finding that he’s changing. That cute girl on the bus with those mesmerizing eyes won’t leave his mind, hanging with his friends isn’t that fun it used to be, and dealing with the taunting and threats of the Indian crowd is getting him down.

Vince faces difficult decisions. Will he rat Sherry out to her parents? Should he tell someone what he knows about the assault? How can he ease the tensions all around him?

REVIEW: This book is written on a low reading level and is a quick read. However, its briefness does not allow full development of the story line and often issues are introduced and dismissed more quickly than they should be. Sometimes it seems as if the Orca books try to address too many issues at once. For struggling readers, the story line is engaging and the length of the book motivating. This book examines racial tensions and just how difficult but rewarding overcoming them can be. The character also faces difficult decisions and learns that taking a stand for what is right is often difficult but always essential.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: sequence, cause and effect, writer’s motive, audience, purpose, tone, compare and contrast

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: an assault takes place – but the details provided are sketchy

RELATED BOOKS: Death Wind, One More Step, Grind, Tears of a Tiger, The World According to Dog, Maniac Magee

MOVIE CONNECTIONS:  Crash, Freedomland

MUSIC-SONG CONNECTIONS: Black or White by Michael Jackson, Ebony and Ivory by Paul McCartney, Drowning by Hootie and the Blowfish, Free Your Mind by En Vogue


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

April 10, 2008

Whale Talk

Whale Talk

Author: Chris Crutcher

Page Length: 220

Reading Level: 7.2


PLOT SUMMARY & REVIEW: T. J. Jones has just graduated from Cutter High School.  T. J. is of mixed racial descent (Japanese, African-American and White) and was adopted after being taken from his drug addicted mother and put in C. P. S. Although T. J. is very athletic, he chose not to participate in any high school sports until approached by his journalism teacher, Mr. Simet, the second day of school. 


Crutcher writes the book with T. J. as the narrator, retelling the events of his senior year. 


T. J. helps coach Simet put together a swim team.  His primary objective being — they all earn letter jackets—an elite privilege held specifically for the bullying, prejudice football players who do not feel the swim team is worthy of wearing. 


The team is made up of a group of outcasts with T. J as the only real swimmer.


The story evolves around the training and swim meets of the Cutter All Night Mermen.  After training, traveling, competing, and eating pizza during the winter season they begin to let down their guards and bond into a “real” team.


The book goes much deeper into J. T.’s past which involved being physically abused.  His father also has a haunting past which he deals with through, “Whale Talk”.   Through their experiences, they become involved with Heidi, a young girl who is also a racial mix and suffering from child abuse.  As they begin to help her, they become an enemy of the girl’s stepfather who is one of the Cutter football alumni.  He is the mentor to Mike Barbour, a senior football player who has a personal vendetta against T. J. and other members of the swim team.


As the swim season comes to a close and it appears all the swimmers will receive a letter jacket, tension at school rises between coaches and athletes of the different sports.  As T. J. and his parents provide support for Heidi, her brothers and mother, tension rises at home.


Crutcher does an excellent job of delivering a powerful message of small-town prejudice and social issues.  He develops each of the characters so that the reader understands each of their struggles.


Both young men and women would enjoy this book.  It describes vividly the swimming and training events and one can sometimes feel the testosterone pumping through the male characters.  The females in the story display both strong and weak characteristics.


TOUCHY AREAS: The teacher should be aware that profanity is used and there is much reference to verbal and physical abuse.




REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

April 8, 2008

Stealing Home The Story of Jackie Robinson

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Stealing Home The Story of Jackie Robinson

Author: Barry Denenberg

Page Length: 116

Reading Level: 5


PLOT SUMMARY & REVIEW: Stealing Home: The Story of Jackie Robinson, is a story not only of a great athlete, but of a great African American.  His career began in 1947, as the first black professional baseball player; and, with it, he launched a movement for equality in the “very public eye” of America.  Denenberg tells the story of Jackie’s life with man facts, details, and records which would interest the avid baseball fan.  However, he also shares the struggles Jackie endures as an African American in the early decades of the 20th century.


Jackie Robinson came from a large athletic family raised by a mother with dreams for a better life for her children than she had lived. I was surprised to learn that Jackie attended UCLA and was the first four-letter athlete.  With this history, it was hard to believe the discrimination that was shown to him as he tried to enter Major League baseball.


Jackie served in the army during World War II where he felt the first major impact of the way the country, as a whole, viewed whites and blacks.  He was wanted by the white soldiers to play on their football team but was not allowed to sit next to them in the dining hall.  Jackie tired of this treatment quickly and Denenberg writes a quote from Jackie (p. 29) which got him transferred to Camp Hood, Texas.


After serving his time for his country, Jackie was recruited by Branch Rickey and became the first black player of Major League baseball.  It was an exciting but scary time for Jackie and his family.  It didn’t take Jackie long to break batting records and home-run records but it did take awhile to break the racial barriers.


The barriers were broken, however and with Jackie’s rise to fame he was considered a baseball hero who had the courage and humility to confront racism for black people, both on and off the field.


I enjoyed reading this book because of the vulnerable humanitarian way Denenberg presents Jackie Robinson.  The story is not only of Jackie Robinson but of the perils African Americans suffered prior to the Civil Rights Movement.  This would be a good book for baseball lovers and a good novel to read in the study of the Civil Rights movement.




REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

February 27, 2008

Frederick Douglass Fights for Freedom

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Frederick Douglass Fights for Freedom

Author: Margaret Davidson

Page Length: 80

Reading Level: 3

Genre: Non-fiction


REVIEW: I have read several of Margaret Davidson’s biographies and find Frederick Douglass Fights for Freedom as the best written.  The story of Frederick Douglass is graphic in the descriptions of the treatment of black slaves in the early 1800’s.


Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Maryland in 1817.  He lived his first few years with his grandmother but he knew it was a matter of time until he moved to Old Master’s house to begin his life as a slave.  Frederick was fortunate, in that he was sent to Baltimore as a young man to work as a slave in the city.  There, he served as a companion to one of Old Master’s brother-in-laws, Hugh Auld.  Not only did this give him the opportunity to be well-fed and live in comfortable accommodations but the lady of the house, Sophie, taught him to read.  She did not know it was against the law to teach slaves to read.


Frederick was smart and continued to teach himself to read.  He knew he did not want to spend his life as a slave.  It took two attempts but Frederick did escape and moved to the North where there was no slavery.  He became a spokesman for the abolitionists and a friend of Abraham Lincoln.  He wrote books and helped fight slavery for 25 years. 


He was the inspiration for those who fought for laws that would protect blacks, for schools for the blacks, and for better jobs for the blacks until his death on February 20, 1895.  Over 25,000 people attended his funeral in The Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington D. C.


This book was informative of the real life slaves led and the fight for equality that did not come until the end of the Civil War.  It tells of the fight Frederick Douglas continued to lead for African Americans after the war.


Frederick Douglas was the inspiration for Martin Luther King Jr. who continued the fight for freedom over 100 years after Douglass began.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: Students who enjoy history would like this book.  It would be a good book as a supplement to the study of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement.




REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner


February 19, 2008

The Hemingway Tradition

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The Hemingway Tradition

Author: Kristin Butcher

Page Length: 92

Reading Level: 4.2


PLOT SUMMARY: As the story opens, Shaw Sebring and his mom are moving to Winnipeg, Canada.  They are trying to recover from the shock and tragedy of the suicidal death of Dyan Sebring, Shaw’s dad and respected author. 


Shaw actually was the person to find his dad, who ended his life by putting a bullet to his head. Sixteen year old Shaw and his mother were unable to cope with the suicidal note, the death, and memories left in the house; so, his mom got a transfer and the move to Winnipeg was made.


Shaw begins school as normally as possible.  He makes a new best friend, Jai, from East India.  Jai invites Shaw to tryout for the volleyball team and they both make the team.  Shaw also meets Tess, a girl in his English class.  Tess is on the newspaper staff and she and Shaw appear to have “something special” between them.


As normal of life as Shaw tries to lead, he is not functioning normally.  He is haunted not only by the visual memory of his dad but also by the note his dad left.  In his note, Dylan Sebring, the world known author, said that he had lived a life full of lies.  He revealed he was gay, and could not longer live the life any longer.


The note left Shaw questioning if what he had considered a happy well-adjusted childhood had also been a lie.  As much as he had wanted to be like his dad when he was alive, he now wants to be as different from him as possible in his death.  As a result, his grades are falling and his mom is concerned.


Through the support of his mom, encouraging him to read his dad’s journal, Shaw comes to grip with his dad’s sexuality and the prejudices his dad felt.  He also is aware of racial prejudices in his school.


REVIEW: I liked this book because Ms. Butcher is able to relate the feelings and emotions that Shaw experiences quite realistically.  Shaw’s thoughts are those of any teen who might experience a death in the family, a move to a new  city—questioning what is real, what is unreal, what is good, what is bad.


The book is short but well written.  It covers several social issues.  I think any high school student would enjoy it. 


TOUCHY AREAS: Teachers should be aware of the referral to the bi-sexual preference subject matter.




REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner


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