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

Al Capone Does My Shirts

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko: Book Cover

Al Capone Does My Shirts

Author: Gennifer Choldenko

Page Length: 225

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Historical Fiction

Career Connections: Electrician, Prison Warden, Prison Guard     

PLOT SUMMARY: Moose is not happy about the move his family has made to Alcatraz, the island that holds many famous prisoner’s hostage. His dad took the job as an electrician and prison guard, in the hopes that they would be able to place Moose’s older sister, Natalie, in a special school in San Francisco. Natalie displays signs of Autism, but in 1935 (the setting of the story) the disease had not been diagnosed. Moose is in the 7th grade and loves baseball and a good game of catch.  However, there are no boys his age on the island.

Because Moose is required to stay with Natalie every afternoon after school, he loses the one friendship he established with his schoolmate, Scout, in San Francisco.  He and Natalie form friendships with the younger children on the island and the warden’s daughter, Piper. While trying to stay out of trouble with the warden and trying to find a way to rekindle Scout’s friendship, Moose relentlessly looks for a way to keep Natalie happy and to find a convict’s baseball for Scout.

Meanwhile, his mother earnestly tries every possible avenue to ensure Natalie’s acceptance into the private school while his dad works and tries to keep the dysfunctional household in peace.

REVIEW: This is an excellent story based on historical facts about life on the island of Alcatraz in the depression years of the 1930’s.  Although the characters are fictional, they are based on authentic lives on the island during the time Al Capone was serving his sentence for tax evasion.  

The characters of the story are well-developed and the portrayal of Natalie’s symptoms of Autism is authentic.  Al Capone’s character is minimal, however, mystical in capturing the interest of the reader.  An author’s note and discussion questions and activities are included in the back of the book.

I would recommend the book for any teen or adult to read.


AREAS OF TEACHING: Historical Context, Character, Setting

RELATED BOOKS: Al Capone Shines My Shoes, Mr. Capone, Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone, Children of Alcatraz: Growing up on the Rock


MUSIC CONNECTIONS: Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Al Capone (1959)

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 30, 2009


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Author: Kevin Brooks

Page Length: 364  

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Joe is an ordinary teen age boy living outside London with his father and sister.  His parent’s are divorced although they continue to see each other.  Joe plays bass in a local rock band.  One day, on the way to a doctor’s appointment, Joe encounters Candy, the most beautiful girl he has ever seen.  His conversation with her in Mc Donald’s is brief because a large black man comes in to the restaurant and forces her to leave with him.

Although the encounter was brief, Joe did get Candy’s number. He calls her and they meet at the London Zoo.  While in the Moonlight World tunnel, Candy begins to kiss Joe and a heavy make-out scene follows.  Joe is aware that Candy is taking some type of drugs but he is not sure what.  He becomes obsessed with her and writes a song about her. 

When Candy goes to see Joe at the club where his band is playing, she hears the song about her.  As the crowd applauds the performance, a fight breaks out between the black man who appears to possess Candy, and Mike, Joe’s future brother-in-law.  Joe discovers Candy is living a life of heroin drug addiction and prostitution. Determined to help her, he risks his relationship with his father and his friends and eventually his own life. 

REVIEW: The book is a narrative written from Joe’s point of view.  The characters are developed in a realistic manner in which the reader can embrace their feelings and emotions.

I would recommend the book for mature teens.  The content is heavy, but gripping, as the characters experience the tragedies of drug addiction.

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

TOUCHY AREAS: Teachers should be aware that the theme of the book is about drug addiction.  Mild profanity is used throughout the book (p. 22, 30, 102, 118, 285, through the end of the book) and a heavy make-out scene is described on page 97.  There is drug use on pages: 116, 142, and 195.  Chapter 19 describes Candy’s withdrawal from heroin.  There is also physical violence included.       

RELATED BOOKS: Crank, The Beast, Slam, Charmed, Rats Saw God, No Problem, The Glory Field

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Miles from Home (2006),


 REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

January 18, 2009

The Land

The Land

Author: Mildred D. Taylor

Page Length: 375

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Realistic Fiction     

PLOT SUMMARY: The time is the 1870’s, the setting is the Southern United States and the main character is Paul-Edward Logan.  Paul was the child of a white man and a woman of Indian and Black mix.  Paul looked white but was referred to as a “white nigger”.  Paul has three half-brothers who share his dad as their father.  Paul’s older sister, Cassie, had the same father and mother. 

As the story begins, Paul is often beat up by Mitchell, an African American boy whose dad works for Paul’s dad.  Paul’s older brothers will not defend Paul against Mitchell, so Paul eventually makes a deal with Mitchell to teach him to “read, write, and figure” if Mitchell will teach him how to fight. The boys stick to this arrangement and become best friends.

Paul’s dad, unlike many white men, acknowledges Paul and Cassie as his children, but when Paul and his half-brother, Robert, have a conflict in front of a white family, it is Paul who is whipped and punished.  Paul realizes that things will never be the same, so he and Mitchell decide to run away.  This begins the adventure they have together trying to make a life for them.  

REVIEW: The Land is the prequel to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.  Mildred Taylor writes the book that is based on stories she was told by her parents and grandparents.  The book is historical in that it accurately describes the racial prejudices that resulted in the abolishment of slavery.  The attitudes of the white people towards African Americans are well depicted. 

The characters and their relationships are well-developed, the setting of the south is well described, and the adventures of Mitchell and Paul keep the plot moving at a fast pace.  This is an excellent book for African-American students to read to learn of the hardships their ancestors had to endure before the Civil Rights Movement.

At the back of the book, there is an author’s note, Saga of the Logan Family, and a section with discussion questions that could be used in a book study or when used as a supplement to a class novel.

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

RELATED BOOKS: Song of the Trees, The Well, Mississippi Bridge, The Friendship, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, The Road to Memphis, Logan, The Gold Cadillac

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1978), Sounder (1972)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

January 17, 2009

Call Waiting

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Call Waiting

Author: R. L. Stine

Page Length: 167

Reading Level: 3

Genre: Fiction-Horror         

PLOT SUMMARY: As the book begins, Karen is stalking her boyfriend, Ethan, because he broke a date with her and told her he had to work.  Karen is suspicious that Ethan is hanging out with Wendy, another girl in their class.   Throughout the book, Karen is obsessed with Wendy’s relationship with Ethan.  When Wendy has an accident and falls down a flight of stairs, some of Karen’s classmates blame her.  Karen even begins to question herself.

Ethan, however, gives Karen his attention after Micah, Karen’s best friend, calls her mother and says Karen may need some psychological help.  Karen questions her actions, too, when her older brother plays practical jokes on her and when she begins getting mysterious phone calls.  In a strange turn of events, Karen learns that friends are not always what they seem to be.

REVIEW: R. L. Stine has written a fast reading mystery, filled with enough suspicious actions to keep the reader enthralled.  I read the book in one tense sitting.  For students who like romance, mystery, and suspense this is a good book to read.  Because of the drama between the characters, I believe this book would be enjoyed more by girls than boys.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Conflict, Character, Conclusions, Generalizations, and Predictions

RELATED BOOKS: The Boyfriend, The Beach House, Hit and Run

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: I Saw What You Did (1965)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

Ice Drift

Ice Drift

Author: Theodore Taylor

Page Length: 224

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Realistic Fiction     

PLOT SUMMARY: Alika and Sulu are brothers who are out seal fishing in the Arctic when they feel the floe they are standing on breakaway from the land.  Alika, the older of the two, quickly frees all of his dog sled team, so that they can swim back to the mainland and hopefully get back to the village.  Alika and Sulu are part of the Inuit population that inhabits Greenland.  The boys are stranded on the floating piece of ice.  Aware that they may not be rescued for weeks or months, Alika uses his knowledge of survival skills that he has learned from his dad.  The boys build an igloo and make provisions with the supplies that were on the sled. 

When the dogs of the sled team return to the village, the boy’s parents realize what has happened.  They make futile rescue attempts and because the father’s leg is broken, their mom attempts to travel in a kayak to find the boys down the river.  She is again unsuccessful, but the two young men continue to fight for survival on the broken iceberg.

REVIEW: This story is about life in the Arctic Circle and is full of information about the native animals and the harsh seasons of days with no light and wind blowing blizzards.  Each of the characters learns about themselves and their ability to survive and what is essentially important in life.  This is a great book of adventure and suspense for boys who enjoy realistic fiction.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Sequence of Events, Cause/Effect, Theme, and Setting

RELATED BOOKS: The Sign of the Beaver, Iceberg Hermit, and The Night of the Twisters

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Arctic Tale (2007)

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 24, 2008

One True Friend

One True Friend

Author: Joyce Hansen

Page Length: 154

Reading Level: 6

Genre:  Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: This is the story of a friendship between Amir and Doris who met while Amir was living in a foster home on 163rd street in the Bronx. Amir’s parents were killed in a car wreck and he was separated from his siblings who were put into foster care.  As the story evolves, Amir is living with his youngest brother, Ronald and his foster parent’s, Alvin and Grace Smith. Amir is on a mission to find his aunt, who he believes has his other sibling’s living with them.  He has a letter and picture he wants to send to all of the people who have the same last name as his aunt to try to find them.  However, Mr. Smith forbids Amir to send the letters and says that he will help find his aunt.

Amir feels alone and writes Doris about his life in Syracuse, the Smith’s, and Ronald.  Doris writes back about issues she is having with her schoolmates and family.  Both Amir and Doris, give each other advice and support through their mail. They both feel disconnected from the world they live in and hold on to the distant friendship to solve their problems.

REVIEW: This book starts off slow, but gets better as the relationship between Doris and Amir develops through the letters they write.  The issues that the two teens face are realistic as to what many teens fact today.  A meaningful relationship also develops between the Smith’s and Amir that makes Amir realize what blood family and chosen family can both be a part of one’s life.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Main Idea and Supporting Details, Conflict, Cause/Effect, Compare/Contrast, Setting and Characters

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: References to marijuana use and AIDS, but nothing that is not age appropriate.

RELATED BOOKS: The Gift Giver, Yellow Bird and Me


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

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