The Book Reviews – Website

December 19, 2010

The Afterlife

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The Afterlife by Gary Soto: Book Cover

The Afterlife

Author: Gary Soto

Page Length: 161

Reading Level: 6.1

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Chuy’s just a normal seventeen year old. He likes to hang out with his friends and he’s hoping to snag a girlfriend soon. But fate has another plan. At a club his mother warned him about, Chuy is stabbed multiple times and left for dead on the bathroom floor. Why Chuy? Why now?

REVIEW: This book has a lot of potential. I think it would be an excellent read for many students. One of the great teachable moments of this book occurs when both Chuy and Crystal reflect on their choices and the course of their young lives. Students learn that Crystal killed herself out of fear and the Chuy’s killer lives by and in fear of those around him. The tragic deaths are explored in terms of their effects on the families, friends, and even strangers around them. Students can reflect how we all matter to more people than we may think and how far reaching one’s influence really is on others. Being a book about death – it’s message is all about what it means to live and about how life should be about taking chances and facing our fears.

The book begins with Chuy alive and in a club where he is suddenly stabbed to death in the bathroom. The rest of the book is about Chuy’s acceptance and exploration of his death as he travels about his neighborhood as a ghost. Chuy makes friends and discoveries, and he learns even more about his life as he witnesses the effect his death has on others.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: comparing text to self, compare and contrast, sequence of events, writing styles – reflective

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: stabbing (pages 2-3), death, suicide, fighting

RELATED BOOKS: Buried Onions, Baseball in April, A Summer Life, Accidental Love, The Lovely Bones (A Sebold)

RELATED WEBSITES:  (awesome book trailer)

REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor


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 30, 2009

My Life and Death by Alexandra Canarsie

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My Life and Death by Alexandra Canarsie

Author: Susan Heyboer O’Keefe

Page Length: 255

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Alexandra, with her mother, has just returned to her mother’s home town, Nickel Park. Alexandra has had trouble in every school she’s been to lately, she and her mother are always on the move, and she already hates life in this little town trailer park. The only pastime Allie enjoys is attending funerals – even of complete strangers. This time Allie makes a new friend, find a teacher who believes in her, and uncovers a mystery – it appears that Jimmy was murdered and Allie intends to find out who did it.

REVIEW: This book was an “ok” read. It deals with some of the typical issues of teenage rebellion and general discontent. The one notable subject matter was that Allie constantly blames her mother for the disappearance of her father – and in her mind she romanticizes the reasons why she hasn’t heard from him – only to later come to terms with the crushing reality that he’s started a new life and doesn’t want her included in it. There are many likable characters for readers to relate to. However, the plot isn’t as well developed as it could be, and Allie’s counter bullying of Dennis and the consequences isn’t adequately addressed.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: comparing text to self, compare and contrast, sequence of events, setting, conflict, resolution

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: bullying issues, funeral descriptions, suicide due to parent acceptance issues

RELATED BOOKS: Death by Eggplant, Christmas Gifts


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

Ball Don’t Lie

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Ball Don’t Lie

Author: Matt de la Pena

Page Length: 280  

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Sticky is a skinny 17-year-old high school junior living in Venice, California.  This is his fourth foster home, after living with his drug addicted, prostitute mother who committed suicide when Sticky was only a young child.  Sticky has an obsessive compulsive disorder, but can usually get control of it after a few minutes.

Although Sticky is white and has been passed from family to family, he has developed an amazing talent for basketball.  He considers his real home the neighborhood recreational gym where old NBA basketball players as well as the homeless hang out.  His passion for basketball is unstoppable.

Surprising even to Sticky, Anh-thu, an Asian girl from school is attracted to him. She loves to watch him play basketball and wants to help him reach his goals and aspirations of making something of the predictable future of a poor white kid living on the street.

Sticky has great plans for Anh-thu’s birthday but they are halted after Sticky is approached for sex at the rec center, makes a bad decision after being taunted by one of the players and finds himself in a dire situation.

REVIEW: I would recommend this book for mature teens.  It is well written in third person voice.  The author is able to create emotion, passion, and suspense in his writing, while covering several intimate scenarios that Sticky experiences in his young life.  Sticky is exposed to difficult situations as a young child, and life doesn’t get easier for him with age. 

The reader is able to see Sticky grow and mature as he progresses through his junior year with the boys at the gym, with his foster family, his girlfriend, and his schoolmates. This is an excellent book for boys interested in basketball.  

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Character, Setting, Supporting Details, Sequence of Events, Conflict, Compare/Contrast, and Cause/Effect

TOUCHY AREAS: harsh profanity (p. 53, 128, 171, 175, 230), physical abuse (p. 65), sexual activity (p. 88, 164), sexual abuse (125), drug use (p. 226)

RELATED BOOKS: Slam, Painting the Black, The Crazy Horse Electric Game, Athletic Shorts

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Ball Don’t Lie (not yet released), Hoop Dreams (1994, Documentary), Hoosiers (1986), Heaven is a Playground (1991), Above the Rim (1994), On Hallowed Ground: Streetball Champions of Rucker Park (2001 Documentary)


 REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner



Author: E. R.  Frank

Page Length: 242

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction         

PLOT SUMMARY: America is a 15-year-old boy who was abandoned by his drug-addicted mother.  He was sent to various foster homes, and as a young child he was repeatedly sexually abused by an “uncle”.  After becoming obsessed with matches and lighters, he set his “uncles” blanket on fire one night and watched the house burn to the ground.  He was teased for being bi-racial and was placed in various treatment centers.  America had several psychiatrists before he started working with Dr. B., after a failed suicide attempt. 

America uses terrible language and calls Dr. B many names, but the doctor patiently plays card games with America and eventually makes a breakthrough with him. After being a victim of the system for many years, America eventually learns to live on his own.  However, he never really escapes the fear of abuse, abandonment and loneliness.

REVIEW: The book is well written in chapter form that shifts from present day to the past from America’s point of view.  The descriptions of the abuse that America endured was gut wrenching and sometimes hard to read.  However, once I started reading, it was hard to put down. 

Because of the harsh language and descriptive sexual abuse, I question whether it should be on the classroom library shelves.  Teachers should be aware of its content. 

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Harsh profanity (p. 28, 48, 59, 93,135, 136,142,148 158 and the remainder of the book), sexual abuse (p. 88, 93, 98, 98, 107, and 109), descriptions of other sexual activity (158 and the remainder of the book)

It is suggested that this book be previewed for appropriateness.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Character and Cause/Effect

RELATED BOOKS: A Child Called It

MOVIE & TV CONNECTIONS: America (2009, T.V. movie), Good Will Hunting (1997)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 8, 2009


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Author: Mary Beth Miller

Page Length: 276

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: As far as everyone else is concerned, Zoe’s guilty. She can’t go anywhere near her old friends and her parents have had to move her away to a new school. Aimee is gone, and this is what Zoe gets for “helping” her – total alienation from her friends, loneliness, isolation, parents who think she’s a murderer, and weekly visits to see a shrink. All Zoe did was try to be a friend and this is her reward??

REVIEW: This book is not the average read by any means. Aimee was Zoe’s best friend. She talked often of killing herself and one night in Zoe’s presence does just that. There are issues of teen sex where Zoe had sex with Chard and took hot baths, etc. taking what she considered aggressive actions not to be pregnant. Aimee tells Zoe stories of an abusive step mother who assaults her sexually. Zoe deals with her own depression and anorexia as a result of the incident. Zoe’s parents are cracking under the stress of probation, psychiatrists, and Zoe’s erratic behavior. On the other hand, the book deals well with an extremely emotional topic – suicide. The reader experiences first hand Zoe’s pain, loss, and suffering (which might make an excellent anti-suicide teaching point). The topics covered in the book are excellent for sparking classroom discussion / debates. Should you elect to let your students read this book – it should definitely be a page turner and of high interest.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: character traits, sequence of events, flashback, depth of emotion for character development, cause and effect, comparing and contrasting

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: girl talks about slitting her wrists (p. 86), child abuse reference (p.133), suicide reference (pgs. 243-246)

RELATED BOOKS: On the Head of a Pin, Handtalk School, The Pact, Thirteen Reasons Why, Hold Tight, Teen Suicide

MUSIC CONNECTIONS: Good Charlotte – Hold On, Linkin Park – Breaking the Habit


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

January 18, 2009

Belle Prater’s Boy

Belle Prater’s Boy

Author: Ruth White

Page Length: 196

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction         

PLOT SUMMARY: Belle Prater, Woodrow’s mother and Gypsy’s aunt, disappears one night without any explanation.  Woodrow, a rather backward boy, moves in with his grandparents who live next door to Gypsy’s more socially adapt family.  Gypsy is the town beauty but she feels invisible and hates her long beautiful hair. Although the townspeople try to find out what happened to Belle, Woodrow seems content and knows why his mother disappeared. He is a great storyteller and entertains his schoolmates and the family with his stories.  Gypsy and Woodrow become instant best friends. Gypsy wonders how Woodrow deals with the loss of his mother while she tries to come to grips with the death of her own father. 

REVIEW: This story is set in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky.  The author writes with local colloquial sayings that make the reader become familiar with the characters and their personalities.  It has mystery with touches of humor that also make it a very humanistic tale. The character development of Gypsy and Woodrow are excellent. The book is based on the friendship that develops between the two sixth graders and how the family deals with death and sorrow.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Gypsy’s father commits suicide and she discovers him as she looks through the living room window.  However, it is not too graphic for the junior high reader or the older reader to handle.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Theme, Conclusions, Generalizations, Predictions, Cause/Effect, Character, and Conflict

RELATED BOOKS: Journey, Comfort Creek, The Pinball’s, Holes

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Cold Mountain (2003)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

November 3, 2008


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Author: Patricia Murdoch

Page Length: 102

Reading Level: 2.8

Genre: Fiction         

PLOT SUMMARY: Julie, a little overweight, was an easy target for Dana, the most popular girl at school, to make fun of and ridicule.  Dana notices that it is not only her, but also anyone that Dana can make a negative remark to, she does.  Julie only wishes there is some way she might be able to give Dana a little dose of her own medicine.  One night as her brother, Zach, returns home from a party, Julie learns that Dana was at the party.  Not only was she at the party without her boyfriend, but also Zach has pictures of her drinking and inappropriately dressed.  Julie now has the ammunition she needs to destroy Dana’s reputation. 

REVIEW: This story addresses the subject of bullying that is prevalent in the school system from junior high through high school.  Students seem to constantly be putting others down in an effort to make themselves look better.  The author portrays the characters in such a manner that the reader can easily identify with a love/hate relationship for the accused and accuser.  After Julie gets her revenge on Dana, she realizes it doesn’t feel so good to hurt someone and acts on that by saving Dana’s life.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Underage alcohol and marijuana use.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Conflict, Point of View, Character, and Foreshadowing

RELATED BOOKS: Story of a Girl

RELATED WEBSITES:,,,…/TeachersGuides/Orca Soundings/ExposureTG.pdf  

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

October 30, 2008

Inside Out

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Inside Out

Author: Terry Trueman

Page Length: 117

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction


PLOT SUMMARY: Zach isn’t your average high school guy. He suffers from Schizophrenia and is haunted by the voices inside his head. One day as he’s waiting for his mom to pick him up at a local store, a robbery takes place. The voices are beginning to talk inside Zach’s head, he’s past due for his medicine, and he’s in no shape to be a hostage. Will Zach get help before it’s too late or will the voices yelling “Die!” win out?


REVIEW: As if Schizophrenia by itself wasn’t bad enough, Zach running out of medication and being under the stress of a robbery only compounds the situation. The reader gets to feel what it’s like to be Zach. We can hear the voices, sense the tension, and feel how hard Zach has to fight for understanding and control. In that sense, the book is a beautiful tool for teaching others how it might feel to be in someone else’s shoes. On another note, the reason behind the robbery prompts much discussion in and of itself. Two teenage boys led to desperation by the need for money to care for their ailing mother end up in a horrible situation. Together they all learn from each other.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: description, imagery, word choice in writing, mood, tone, author’s purpose, sequence of events, cause and effect, internal conflict, external conflict


TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: quote – “he cocks the weapon and lifts it up, taking the muzzle into his mouth,” issue of suicide


RELATED BOOKS: Stuck in Neutral, Cruise Control, No Right Turn


RELATED MOVIES: “A Beautiful Mind” and “What About Bob”





REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

August 24, 2008

Keeper of the Night

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Keeper of the Night

Author: Kimberly Willis Holt

Page Length: 308

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Fiction        

PLOT SUMMARY: Isabel Moreno lives on the island of Guam.  Her mother has just committed suicide and Isabel does not know why.  Isabel’s father is grieving so much that he doesn’t talk to the family and has built a shrine to her mother in his room.  He goes fishing daily, comes home to eat dinner, and then sleeps on the floor beside his dead wife’s bed.

Isabel takes care of her sister, Olivia, who has nightmares and wets the bed.  Frank, Isabel’s brother, has quit talking to anyone and Isabel discovers he is carving on his wall “I Hate You” over and over and over again.  However, she doesn’t know how to talk with him about this, so she just doesn’t say anything.

Her Auntie Bernadette provides food for the family, and tries to help Isabel go on with her life.  She wants her to be a candidate for the town’s fiesta queen, but Isabel cannot move on without answers to why her mother is dead and why her family cannot talk about their grieving.

As Isabel deals with her everyday life, friendships and responsibilities, she discovers she has a natural talent for diving.  She tries out for the diving team, in an effort to find some type of life for herself.  After a rather close call with her brother’s life, the family begins to come together and rebuild their life together.

REVIEW: The author wrote in short passages rather than chapters with Isabel being the narrative voice.  The writing, therefore, came off as Isabel’s direct thoughts of what was happening at the direct moment.  I liked this style because the book seemed to move quicker from one moment to the next without a lot of background.

The book covered both serious issues such as suicide and family relationships but also gave a vivid picture of life in Guam and several of the customs practiced there.

At the back of the book, there is a list of questions for discussion.  Also, included is an interview with the author.  I think the book was good and especially would appeal to females.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Sequence of Events, Cause/Effect, Conflict, Setting, Characters, and customs of the Chamorro of Guam

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: The story revolves around the suicidal death of Isabel’s mother.  Her brother, Frank, is also self abusive and a cutter. 

RELATED BOOKS: The Lightkeeper’s Daughter, Lord of the Deep, Deep

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: “Island of the Blue Dolphins” (1964)


 REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

April 30, 2008

My Time as Caz Hazard

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My Time as Caz Hazard

Author: Tanya Lloyd Kyi

Page Length: 103

Reading Level: 3.2

Genre: Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Caz Hallard is a 10th grader with a less than stellar academic career and a discipline file that includes punching her former boyfriend. Caz is diagnosed with dyslexia (something her parents have trouble believing) and sent to a new school where she is placed in a special reading class to help her. On her first day of school, she meets Mr. Popular who approaches only to recoil when he realizes she is headed to the “special” class. Caz’s special education classroom contains a variety of students. Dodie is shy, less than fashionably dressed, and an easy target. Amanda, a foster child who has been in many homes, has a knack for trouble and soon pulls Caz into a world of skipping school and breaking laws. Caz’s parents are separating, her best friend won’t speak to her anymore, and Dodie has committed suicide. Is she responsible for Dodie’s death and can she save herself before she loses everything? 

REVIEW: This book is typical of the Orca book series. It is written in simple language, on a high interest topic, and the action proceeds quickly. However, the book seems to lack depth. Many of the issues are never fully addressed or developed. I personally find the messages in it disturbing – enough attention wasn’t given to the bullying that led to the suicide. Caz doesn’t pay serious repercussions for her shoplifting habit, and Amanda gets in with the in crowd by “putting out.” While I think these books take a Jerry Springer approach to an interest in “trashy” subjects, I am not sure they are strong enough morally to be worthwhile reads.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: causes and effects (inferred) beyond what the author presents, use of dialogue, examining stereo-types

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: most pages – suicide, sex, shoplifting, bullying, skipping school …

RELATED BOOKS: Orca series, The Shoplifting Game, Klepto

RELATED MOVIES: “CBS Afternoon Playhouse”, Portrait of a Teenage Shoplifter (1981), Rats and Bullies (bullying leads to suicide), Mean Girls


RELATED WEBSITES: (downloadable MP3 file of the first chapter)

REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

April 2, 2008

Darkness Before Dawn

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Darkness Before Dawn

Author: Sharon Draper

Page Length: 272

Reading Level: 5

REVIEW: Darkness Before Dawn details the life of Keisha who is the senior class president of Hazelwood High School. The front cover announces this book as “the dramatic conclusion to the powerful Hazelwood High School trilogy.” However, not having read the others in the trilogy, this story stands alone and gives enough hints about past events to entice the reader to want to read the prior books in the series. Keisha is in her senior year and is currently recovering from the suicide of her former boyfriend, Andy. She harbors some guilt about not being there for him and like others in her high school class; she grieves because her friend since kindergarten is gone.

Most of the story focuses on Keisha’s struggles to prepare for college and overcome her grief. The new year begins with a handsome, new face on campus – Jonathon Hathaway, the 23 year old son of the principal. Jonathon is mature, good looking, and it seems so much more of a man than the boys still in high school. He turns his attention to Keisha. Pursuing her gently at first, his attentions become more concentrated. Keisha parents don’t want her seeing an older boy. Keisha doesn’t tell her friends about meeting him or talking with him on the phone late at night. Jonathon’s experience and smoothness are overwhelming Keisha’s defenses. She begins to sneak around and lie to her parents to see him. One night, Keisha discovers that she’s in way over her head? Why does everything have to be so secretive and what are Jonathon’s intentions? Graduation looms near, and Keisha’s difficult times are far from over. “Keisha is once again plunged into the darkness she’s fought so hard to escape. Will Keisha ever be able to find her way back into the light?” (Draper) 

I enjoyed reading the story although at times I had to concentrate to stay engaged. The book teaches a strong lesson about date rape and recognizing that clandestine meetings under the hood of secrecy are lacking in some authenticity. I would recommend this book to young women who all too often fall prey to the older, smoother, more experienced guy. The lessons Keisha learns are valuable ones and girls often fail to understand why mom and dad forbid them dating older guys. The story also shows perseverance and strength and holds true to the lesson many people need to learn – we have to believe in ourselves and let our spirit shine despite the slings and arrows it endures from others. The language is overall appropriate – plenty of high school slang authentic to the characters.  

RELATED WEBSITES:  (date rape Public Service Announcement with statistics)

REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

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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