The Book Reviews – Website

January 18, 2010

The Contender

The Contender

Author: Robert Lipstyte

Page Length: 227

Reading Level: 6.1

Genre: Fiction, Drama

PLOT SUMMARY: The main character, Alfred Brooks, is a young African American man whose daily life exemplifies the struggles of urban life in the 1960s.  He lives with his caring, loving Aunt Pearl in Harlem since the death of his mother when he was 13 and abandonment of his father when he was 10. On the stoops of his neighborhood are alcoholics, drug addicts, and homeless people. The plot intensifies when Alfred’s long-time best friend, James, and others try to get Alfred to rob the store at which he works. Alfred refuses but forgets to tell the others of the silent alarm. One person gets arrested and the other two get away. James turns to drugs and tempts Alfred. Through these struggles, he manages to find the will to survive and be a better person by learning to box. Boxing and his coaches provides him with the self confidence and discipline he so desperately needs to reject the temptations of drugs, robbery, and dropping out of school for good. Alfred then begins to learn that he can be a positive influence upon the community in which he lives. Alfred learns that being a contender does not necessarily apply only to boxing.

REVIEW: The Contender is an excellent book in which most reader’s can identify with the themes; that is, resisting peer pressure, trying to become a better person, and overcoming difficult situations. Robert Lipstyte, the author of The Contender, leaves the reader with a sense of hope at overcoming obstacles and moving forward rather than following the status quo. After reading the book, one believes he or she can arise from his/her surroundings of desperation if only one becomes focused upon something that is positive and maintains discipline to achieve a goal and maintain hope in a better tomorrow.   

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, peer pressure,  5 steps of the writing process

RELATED BOOKS: Monster by Walter Dean Myers, Rocky Marciano: The Rock of His Times by Russell Sullivan, Muhammad Ali, the People’s Champ  by Elliott J. Gorn,  King of the World by David Remnick, Grammar for Middle School: A… by Don Killgallon, Iron Mike: A Mike Tyson Reader by Daniel O’Connor. Books by the same author: The Brave, The Chief, Warrior Angel, One Fat Summer (Ursula Nordstrom, Raiders Night, The Yellow Flag

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Hope for the Broken Contender (2008), Kid Monk Baroni (1952), Cinderella Man (2005), Rocky Balboa (2006), Rocky (1976)

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REVIEWED BY: Tammy Leitzel

August 30, 2009



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

January 17, 2009

Maniac Magee

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Maniac Magee

Author: Jerry Spinelli

Page Length: 184

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction         

PLOT SUMMARY: Maniac Magee was not born with the name Maniac.  He earned it due to his many athletic antics that he performed in his neighborhood.  He was born Jeffrey Lionel Magee.  He was orphaned at a young age and moved in with his very mean aunt and uncle. After eight miserable years with his aunt and uncle, Maniac ran away.  He literally started running and didn’t stop for a very long time.

In search for a home with a real address, Maniac took up residence at the zoo, until he moved in with the Beale’s, an African American family on the east side of town.  This didn’t workout after awhile, so Maniac left the Beale’s and met Grayson.  Grayson was a former minor league baseball player; and, he and Maniac made a home together.  However, it didn’t last forever.

REVIEW: This is a great book to read as a class novel.  It has excellent character development and teaches about prejudice, love, and family. It is highlighted with tales of the all-American sport of baseball.  As Maniac Magee becomes a legend, he draws a racially prejudice town together, and he helps them learn to accept each other. Maniac makes me think of Mark Twain’s, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Character, Setting, Sequence of Events, Point of View, and Conflict

RELATED BOOKS: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Crash, Max the Mighty

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Pay It Forward (2000)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

November 3, 2008

The Wedding Planner’s Daughter

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The Wedding Planner’s Daughter

Author: Coleen Murtagh Paratore

Page Length: 192

Reading Level:

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Twelve-year-old Willa Havisham has only one wish – she longs for a father. Willa’s mother is beautiful and educated, but there is a problem. Her heart seems closed forever to anything that has to do with love. Willa loves living in Bramble. She finally has a best friend, enjoys spending time with her Nana, and has a wonderful English teacher who would be perfect for her mother. Willa plans a picnic for her mother and Sam and all seems well, until everything goes wrong.  Willa’s secret thirteenth ingredient to each wedding just may be her undoing. Stella does what she always does when she feels in need of protection – she flees. Willa is forced to leave the only home she has every really known. Can she change her mother’s mind before it is too late? Will Willa ever have a father she can call her own?

REVIEW: I absolutely loved this book! I highly recommend it!! Some might consider it a definite magnet for girls. On the other hand, fathers would benefit from the insight into the heart of a young girl that this book offers. The characters are wonderfully crafted. The reader can feel the pain of Willa’s mother and yearn with Willa for her happy ending. Willa’s insight is beautiful – “I can take the look on the father’s face when the music starts and he smiles and whispers ‘Are you ready?’ and his daughter looks up at him and nods like she’s trying not to cry.” The book offers a beautiful lesson about love and trust and how important is in life to never let fear win out.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: description, imagery, mood, tone, author’s purpose, sequence of events, cause and effect, internal conflict, external conflict, character traits

RELATED BOOKS:  The Cupid Chronicles, Willa by Heart, Forget Me Not

RELATED MOVIES: “The Wedding Planner,” “The Parent Trap”


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

September 21, 2008

Losing is Not an Option

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Losing is Not An Option

Author: Rich Wallace

Page Length: 127

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Ron is an athlete who longs for the next running competition and can’t stop dreaming about coming in first. After each defeat, he intensely trains for the next meet. In between meets, Ron is the average high school guy who hangs out with his friends and longs for a girlfriend. He excels as a teenage poet and works hard on the basketball court tool. This book chronicles his crushes, friendships, hardships, and training in nine short stories.

REVIEW: Honestly, the first half of this book I wasn’t making the connection between the same character and the all the short stories. However, in the last half of the book the author seemed to do a better job of tying the stories together. The language in the book ranges from the f word to other frequently used curse words. The main character and his friend are propositioned at a carnival; the girls offer sex for money.  Underage drinking is present, drug use, and sexual innuendos. I would be careful in recommending this book; on the other hand, the Ron does a good job of remaining true to himself and his sport.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: main idea, author’s purpose, making predictions, chronological ordering, textual support

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: page 60 – “closet masturbator”, page 86 – “Ziploc bag of pot”, page 79 – “asshole”

RELATED BOOKS: Curveball, Wrestling Sturbridge, Shots on Goal, One Good Punch


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

July 29, 2008

Probably Still Nick Swansen

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Probably Still Nick Swansen

Author: Virginia Euwer Wolff

Page Length: 152

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Nick is sixteen and in high school. The problem is that he is in Room 19 (a special education class), doesn’t get to drive a car yet, and can’t decide whether or not he should ask Shana to the prom. Shana was in room 19, but she had her going up celebration and went to regular ed. Nick can remember things in science others can’t even say right, but all the other facts in life seem to get jumbled up in his head. He misses Dianne terribly and keeps flashbacking to memories of their childhood. He knows that if Dianne were still there she would know just what to tell him to do. A series of unfortunate events, push Nick too far and he sinks into a deep depression. One day, Nick decides to run around the track after school. He finds Shana there and he discovers that everything isn’t always as it seems.  

REVIEW: I really didn’t enjoy reading this book because of the jumbled together nature of Nick’s thoughts. However, since the book is depicting a student with presumably a learning disability, the constant changing thought process seems in line with what one would expect with a learning disability. In that regard, it sheds a whole new light on thinking about students with learning disabilities as sometimes needing a way to organize and help maintain consistency with information (maybe a the need for an even bigger tie to prior learning). Of course this is a fictional story, examining Nick’s struggles and learning that things aren’t always as they might seem is a valuable lesson for any teenager.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: theme, characters, cause and effect, purpose, word choice, sequence of events

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: drowning described

RELATED BOOKS: True Believer, The Mozart Season, Make Lemonade


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

July 7, 2008

Amazing But True Sports Stories

Amazing But True Sports Stories

Author: Phyllis and Zander Hollander

Page Length: 140

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Nonfiction

REVIEW: 87 true stories about the accomplishments and lives of athletes are contained in this book. Some of the stories are unbelievable, yet very real. The majority of the stories are about baseball players and managers (about 20%), however sports such as football, basketball, and hockey are also highlighted. Each story is a ½ page to 2 pages in length that makes this book enticing to those with a short attention span. Black and white photographs accompany some of the stories. Some of the passages cover teams that have played in Texas.

Here are some highlights: the longest baseball game in history lasted 33 innings over the course of 8 ½ hours (pages 14-16). A baseball game was once called off due to grasshoppers (page 28). The highest scoring baseball game racked up 45 runs (page 45). Tom Dempsey was a successful NFL player given that he only has half of a right foot and a stub for his right hand (page 57). An inspirational football coach in Kansas coached from the confines of his wheelchair (page 65). Wilt Chamberlain, famous basketball player, once scored 100 points in a single game (page 91). 

Other stories in the book include a batboy that was ejected from a game, a baseball player with only one arm, a referee with only one eye, and a golfer who made 3 holes in one in less than 30 minutes!

Many of the stories are about one-time accomplishments or “miracles”, while other stories describe extraordinary individuals who overcome diverse odds. I would recommend this book to any sport lover.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: adjective usage, technical vocabulary (related to sports)

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: mention of an “adult magazine” (page 124)

RELATED BOOKS: And Nobody Got Hurt 2!, Baseball in April and Other Stories, National Football League: Behind the Scenes

MOVIE CONNECTIONS:Miracle on Ice” (1981), “The Stratton Story” (1949), “Hoosiers” (1986)


REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

January 23, 2008


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Author: Sharon Creech

Page Length: 180

Reading Level: 5th

Genre: Poetry


REVIEW & PLOT SUMMARY: The cover of this book is very appealing. A clean white background with a shiny yellow/orange apple attracts the attention of the writer. However the title, Heartbeat, does not exactly fit with the front illustration. One would think this book might be about nutrition, health, or dieting. However, that is not the case at all.


The story is written in the format of poetry. It is easy to follow. The main character is Annie. Her greatest joy is running, and she runs everywhere! Annie also loves to draw.


However, Annie has fears too. She has stated ones such as war, being left alone, and dying. She also has unstated fears such as change and growing up. Many things in her life are occurring all at once. Her mother is pregnant, her grandfather who lives with her is forgetting many things, and her best-friend Max has good days and bad ones. In this story, Annie is trying to make sense of it all.


Starting on page 51, the author begins to use the tool of footnotes, for humor and effect. Annie has learned about footnotes in Mr. Welling’s class. On page 59, we are introduced to the apple assignment in Annie’s art class. The students each have a real apple from which to draw. They are to draw one picture of an apple a day for 100 days. The teacher feels that through this assignment, the students will discover the “un-ordinary-ness” of an apple. As weeks progress, Annie’s apple changes in appearance. The apple is a metaphor for change in Annie’s life.


The apple ultimately gets bitten into by Annie’s grandpa. At first, Annie is sad. But then she realizes that she can alter her project by drawing the apple with the bite in it. Each picture from then on would have less and less of the apple exterior drawn. In the end, what will remain will be the tiny seed. The seed is a metaphor for new beginnings, life, and creation.


The author enjoys the use of repetition. For example, “flip, flip, flip” give us a sense that we can see pages turning in Grandpa’s photo album as he attempts to remember his past. Annie is experiencing the pain and confusion her grandfather is going through. It appears that he has a condition similar to Alzheimer’s. Also, “thump-thump, thump-thump”, makes us feel as if we can hear a baby’s heartbeat in the womb of Annie’s mother. Annie is mesmerized by the fact that an “alien baby”, as she calls it, is growing inside her mother.


The quietist moment in the book is when Annie’s new brother, Joey, is born. Here he is lying on a blue sheet in the birthing center and not moving. I was shocked and did not know what would happen next. Fortunately, with a few puffs of oxygen, the baby begins to breathe normal.


In terms of more change, Max (Annie’s running partner) joins a school team. Also, girls begin to feel attracted toward him. Annie is not fazed by this and desires Max to be her running partner for a little while longer. She wants to hold on to her present friendship with him, still knowing that change is inevitable.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: This story is a simple one about adolescent change. I would use this book to talk about theme and poetic devices. On page 106, I was amused by the section titled, “Forbidden Words”. Mr. Welling, posted a list of words on the board that students are not to use: very, like, ya know?, uh, well, stuff, and yeah. I found this funny because I had come up with a similar list myself in my classroom. I believe I would add the words “stuff” and “cuz” to the list. On page 120, a “Treasure of Words” list is shown. Mr. Welling lists words such as thrilling, sensational, and exhilarating. These are to replace the forbidden words in class.




REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton


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