The Book Reviews – Website

January 1, 2011

The Road of the Dead

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The Road of the Dead

Author: Kevin Brooks

Page Length: 339

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Ruben has always been different. He can sense what others are thinking or feeling even when they’re not near him. One night he senses that his sister Rachel is in pain and is gripped by fear. The next day, his family finds out that Rachel was murdered. He and his older brother Cole set out on to avenge her death and find out who killed her. Before long, they are themselves victims of violence. Trapped in a web of deceit and surrounded by people who want to silence them permanently, Cole and Ruben must fight their way out. Their only goal is to take Rachel’s body home for a proper burial... if they can make it back alive.

REVIEW: Typical Kevin Brooks book – edgy, violent, dark, foul mouthed, violent… To some teens though – this might be interesting. I found the book to be a little shallow and unrealistic – 2 boys taking on an entire town – what are the chances? The fact that the girl has been raped and murdered is a little dark (not something the teenage mind always needs more of). The review on the back of the book mentions “brutal, vivid violence” – I totally concur. I would not read this book as a class. On a historical note, the road of the dead was a passageway, funeral processions walked along to arrive to the final resting place of the body many years ago.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: imagery, author’s purpose, sequence of events, cause and effect

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: many – violence, shooting, torture, rape, dead bodies, etc.

RELATED BOOKS: Lucas, Candy, Being


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor


The Hoopster

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The Hoopster


Author: Alan Lawrence Sitomer


Page Length: 218


Reading Level: 6


Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Andre seems to have everything – an uncanny ability to shoot baskets, a great job at a magazine, and an awesome girlfriend. Andre is assigned the job of writing an article on racism. He begins to notice it everywhere he goes, even in his cousin Cedric’s skits. One night, Andre’s article gets written and he becomes a local celebrity; but, fame comes with a price. Race tensions are high in Andre’s town and his article is getting as much hate mail as fan mail. Andre’s own life is threatened. Will he ever reach his dreams of becoming a famous writer in the midst of so much hatred? What will reaching for his dreams cost him in the end?

REVIEW: This book has a decent story line and was actually able to include basketball without being totally focused on just the sport. As the matter of fact, this athlete has dreams of being a writer. He dates a Hispanic girl, his best friend is white, and he learns that his own father once changed his fate because of racist hatred. Faced with this knowledge and facing his own hate crime, Andre must decide if he too will enter into the cycle of violence or if he can follow a different path. Andre suffers tremendously because his views are outside the norm. The actions of the supremacist group leaves Andre emotionally and physically battered; yet, through it all, Andre prevails and continues to believe in himself and believe that he can change the racist views of the world.

This book had a basic plot and an easy story line to follow. This book would work well as a classroom read for students with a lower reading level.

AREAS FOR TEACHING:  character traits, cause and effect, author’s purpose, sequence of events, imagery, elements of plot, stereotypes

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: racist remarks, hate crime –  Andre is physically assaulted with the intent to permanently maim him, his father tells of a white man relieving himself on his boots and of being hit over the head with a bottle

RELATED BOOKS: Hip-Hop High School, Paulsen’s Nightjohn, Draper’s The Battle of Jericho, To Kill a Mockingbird, Richard Peck’s The River Between Us

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Dead Poets Society (1989), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

December 19, 2010

The Boxer

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The Boxer by Kathleen Karr: Book Cover

The Boxer

Author: Kathleen Karr

Page Length: 169

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: It’s the late 1800s and times are hard for John and his family. His father has run off, his mother barely makes enough money to get by, and he’s left trying to support his brothers and sisters. Tired of struggling, John decides to try to win the prize money in a fight – there’s only one catch – fighting is illegal. John winds up in the slammer for six months, but it’s in jail that he truly learns what it means to be a champion. Never giving up his love for boxing and determined to provide well for his family, John Woods overcomes the odds to become a famous boxer.

REVIEW: This was interesting read. John’s warm heart and love for his family above himself is an excellent lesson to promote to teenagers. The theme of perseverance and survival in the book is wonderfully and vividly presented. Readers get a feel for the economic circumstances of the time, the limitations imposed by one’s class, and the determination it takes to prevail during hard times. John never gives up on his dreams, his family, or his ethics. This book is a good read and would likely appeal to boys – with its boxing sequences and blow by blow descriptions.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: historical connections, connecting text to self, connecting text to text, cause and effect, sequence of events, compare and contrast

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: boxing, incarceration, betting

RELATED BOOKS: Fortune’s Fool, Born For Adventure, World’s Apart, Mama Went to Jail for the Vote, The 7th Knot, Gilbert and Sullivan Set Me Free


“Rocky” movies

Boxing paintings –


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

Runs with Horses

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Runs With Horses by Brian Burks: Book Cover

Runs with Horses

Author: Brian Burks

Page Length: 117

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Runs with Horses is a teenage Apache warrior in training. He lives in the Sierra Madre mountains and must endure many tasks to become a great warrior. Within Runs With Horses tribe is the infamous Apache leader – Geronimo. Geronimo requires Runs With Horses to prove himself worthy of being a warrior. Run With Horses must never show fear and never even consider surrender. He is trained to be tough and to endure any hardship. Run With Horses completes every task they assign him to. Being raised in the old world ways, Runs With Horses becomes dismayed when Geronimo announces that the tribe will surrender to the army and move to the reservation. He believes that he must do whatever is necessary to be faithful to his Apache ways.

REVIEW: The book relates to teenage boys in terms of proving themselves and discussing cultural rites of passage into manhood. Runs With Horses has to have nerves of steel and an iron will. For example, one of his tasks is to dive off the cliff and plunge his naked body through the ice layer on the pond below into the freezing water; then, he must remain away from the tribe that night and survive alone in the wilderness. Many other tasks are given to him to prepare him for his extreme life as an Apache warrior. Having completed nearly all the tasks, Runs With Horses then learns of the approaching surrender – this is an interesting discussion point with students about how hard it is to accept change and disappointment when all your hopes and dreams have been in another. Teachers can also discuss how despite all his training – perhaps the Apache’s were missing an element of adaptability (it was there way or no way – of course didn’t the Army see it that way too….). 

AREAS FOR TEACHING: connecting text to self, historical connections, sequence of events, cause and effect, setting, character traits

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: scalping, raiding / killing others

RELATED BOOKS: Walks Along, Soldier Boy, Murphy’s Ambush, Wrango, Murphy’s Trail

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Sitting Bull, Battle of Chief Pontiac, Fort Apache (1948)


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

June 5, 2010

Lord of the Flies

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Lord of the Flies

Author: William Golding

Page Length: 248

Reading Level: 7-12

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Tragedy strikes and a group of school boys, a fortunate few, survive only to find themselves alone on an uninhabited island. There’s talk of rescue. How could it happen, when, surely the adults in their lives will come looking? Then there’s the chaos. There must be some sense of order so that the boys can find food, shelter, and a plan for their rescue. Who should be in charge – the smart one, the athletic one, the popular one? What will happen when they disagree, when they bully each other, when the little ones are scared? Can they remain civilized among the savagery of basic survival or will they be their own undoing?

REVIEW: I’ve read several reviews on the Internet from people who loved this book; but, personally I found reading it grueling. The characters were sometimes hard to follow, the details were incessantly boring, and I couldn’t wait for the story to end so that I didn’t have to read it anymore. On another note, it is always beneficial to contemplate the forces of society and the vile baseness to which we can all so easily return in rote survival mode. The book therefore leads to useful discussion about what the boys might have done differently, why the outcome was what it was, how the outcome is reflected in our own world, and how complex and multi-faceted the creation of civilized society and social norms really is.

AREAS FOR TEACHING:  character traits, cause and effect, author’s purpose, sequence of events, imagery, realism, allegory, metaphor

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: many — bullying, killing of an animal, intentional injury and killing of other boys

RELATED BOOKS: Dies the Fire by Stirling, 1632 by Flint, Islands In the Sea of Time by Stirling, War of the Worlds, Life of Pi, Hatchet by Paulsen, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Lord of the Flies (1990), Island of the Blue Dolphins (1964), War of the Worlds


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

November 15, 2009

Parvana’s Journey

Parvana’s Journey

Author: Deborah Ellis

Page Length: 199

Reading Level: 6.3

Genre: Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Sequel to The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey captures the reader’s attention from the very beginning. Parvana is alone in war-torn Afghanistan, her father dead, as she sets out disguised as a boy to cross the Afghanistan countryside in search of her mother and sisters. If the Taliban discovers her, thinking she is a boy, they would enlist Parvana into the army. If they find out she is a girl, they would punish her for being without a veil and without a male family member. She must then keep a low profile, not exposing herself to this danger. She sees death and destruction everywhere she walks.

First, she finds a baby boy lying near his dead mother and rescues him, feeding him the best she can with water and rice. When she tries to take shelter in a cave, she comes upon a boy about 9 years old, who has lost a leg to land mines. Asif is rude and angry, but he is good with baby Hassan, cleaning the clothes that serve as diapers and helping to keep him clean and fed. These three set out on the road until they come upon a minefield and a strange little girl who is taking care of her aged grandmother. The children rest here for a while until a bomb destroys their shelter and kills the old woman-then they take to the road again. Just as they are near death from starvation, they stumble on a refugee camp run by international agencies and are taken in, given minimal food and shelter. Their problems are not resolved, however, and more disasters await them.

REVIEW:  This book certainly displays the resilience of children who endure extraordinary circumstances. Ellis has been in Afghanistan collecting oral histories from women in refugee camps and this has been the basis of Parvana’s story. In one sense, it is a straightforwardly realistic narrative, but the circumstances the children face are almost unimaginable, certainly to children in the West. Strengthening the sense of reality is Ellis’s ability to capture the tension between the children–their bickering as their fears and suffering overwhelm them, their fantasies of safety and shelter, and their loneliness and desperate need for adults on which to depend. This is an excellent way for young Americans to understand the plight of the Afghani people.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: theme, setting, point of view, main idea and supporting details, characters, conflict,  plot, compare/contrast, cause/effect, conclusions, generalizations, predictions, audience and purpose, voice, mood, tone, narrative, writer’s motive, World Literature, drama, tragedy, and epic.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Sensitivity of children surviving alone crossing areas with mine fields and starving most of the time.

RELATED BOOKS: Habibi by Naomi Shihah Nye, A Little Piece of Ground by Elizabeth Laird, Shabanu: Daughters of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples, Under the Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples. Books by the same author: Breadwinner, Mud City, and Off to War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees.

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: The Kite Runner (2007), Massoud, l’Afghan (1998 documentary), Passing the Rainbow (2008 documentary), Massoud, l’Afghan (1998 documentary).

ART CONNECTIONS: (scroll down there is a short video displaying various pieces of artwork)


REVIEWED BY:  Tammy Leitzel

November 14, 2009

Island of the Blue Dolphins

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Island of the Blue Dolphins

Author: Scott O’Dell

Page Length: 184

Reading Level: 5.5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: The only life Karana has ever known is as a young Indian woman on her tribe’s island. Their peaceful world is disturbed when hunters arrive one day to rob the land of its treasures and start a great battle. Out of sadness and despair, Karana’s people decide to leave their village life behind. But as the boat sets sail, Karana realizes that her little brother has been left behind. Will she save him? If she gives up her chance for rescue, will there be another or is Karana prepared to survive on the island alone?

REVIEW: Karana’s story is heart wrenching and interesting; however, I think that struggling readers will become lost in many of the details and descriptions of the hunt and island life. Yet, O’Dell uses vivid imagery; students could respond by recreating scenes from the story. Helping students to visualize the island and the conditions (possibly through pictures and drawings) would help improve comprehension and engagement in the last half of the story. I’ve seen this book used as a sixth grade classroom read and most of the students were not engaged in the story. However, the novel brings to light some interesting discussion points about sacrifice and survival. It definitely provides a springboard for discussing bravery and courage. As a book, with a character who endures many hardships and prevails, it is a worthwhile read. It was a winner of the Newberry Medal.

The story is based on the true accounts of the Lost Woman of San Nicolas.

AREAS FOR TEACHING:  character traits, cause and effect, author’s purpose, sequence of events

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: fighting among the natives and the Aleuts (p. 22-24)

RELATED BOOKS: Gary Paulsen’s Dogsong, Hatchet, S. M. Sterling’s Dies the Fire, Lord of the Flies, Robinson Crusoe, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Island of the Blue Dolphins (1964)


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

September 28, 2009

How I Live Now

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How I Live Now

Author: Meg Rosoff

Page Length: 194

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Daisy leaves behind her father and his new wife in New York in search of a sense of family. Daisy’s English cousins take her in with open arms and so a life of love, family, and adventure begins. Her Aunt leaves on a trip leaving the children all alone, and then their lives are irrevocably changed. War has erupted. There are no communications and that’s just the beginning. The children must survive occupation, no food, no medical help, and even separation. The world as Daisy knew it no longer exists. Can she persevere despite the hardships? Is there life after war?

REVIEW: The ideas presented in this book were fascinating. The reader catches a glimpse of the harsh realities of war and the backward trend society is forced to take because of it. With no electricity, supplies, or communication, and not enough weapons, the children must become resourceful and inventive. The characters are realistic and the story line is believable. Who ever stops to consider what we’d do if all our modern conveniences were suddenly non-existent? How would surviving anything so horrific alter the course of your life – if you survived at all? Rosoff tells a beautiful story etched with pain and suffering but enveloped in love and courage. This is a great thinking story and therefore a wonderful discussion piece.

AREAS FOR TEACHING:  character traits, cause and effect, author’s purpose, sequence of events, imagery, realism, first person narration

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: violence – p. 108 enemy attack, p. 105 “brains splattered everywhere,” p. 141 “birds were pecking at the dead face in front of me”

RELATED BOOKS: Dies the Fire by Sterling, 1632 by Flint, Islands In the Sea of Time by Sterling, War of the Worlds, Life of Pi, Hatchet by Paulsen

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Island of the Blue Dolphins (1964), War of the Worlds


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

August 30, 2009

Lord of the Flies

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Lord of the Flies

Author: William Golding

Page Length: 202

Reading Level: 9

Genre: Allegorical Novel, Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: In Lord of the Flies, British school boys are stranded on a deserted island during a nuclear war because their plane crashes. Ralph meets Piggy, a fat-glasses wearing boy, and together they find a conch shell which they use as a trumpet. They use this conch shell to make a loud noise hoping that it will help locate other survivors of the plane crash. In response to the sound, other boys appear. The very small boys are called “lilluns”. The older boys are called “biguns”. Also a group of choir boys led by Jack Merridew arrive. All the boys soon realize that there are no adults present so they try to organize a society with rules based upon the rules from civilization as they know it. In an attempt to organize a society, the boys elect Ralph as the chief. Ralph’s competitor, Jack, is assigned control of the choir (the hunters who locate the food). As in most societies, duties to be performed are delegated to each of the boys by Ralph.  Since Jack and his choir are the “hunters”, Ralph, Piggy, and the twins who are called “Samneric” will carry water and build huts. Ralph and Piggy decide to build a fire using Piggy’s glasses. The boys hope the fire is seen by planes or ships that could rescue them. The hunters are also responsible for keeping this fire burning. One day, the hunters neglect the fire and it goes out. Conflict arises when Ralph and Piggy criticize Jack. In response, Jack breaks Piggy’s glasses and brags about the pig his hunters have killed for food. Soon the boys begin to think that a “beast” is on the island and everyone eventually becomes afraid. This fear causes even more power struggles between Ralph and Jack. With fear, conflict, and chaos, the boys turn to “savages”.  What or who is the “beast”? As the beast becomes a reality, what happens to Ralph and Piggy? Why does the group of “hunters”, led by Ralph, begin to “hunt” him?  Does the group of boys get rescued or are they forced to survive alone on the island forever?  

REVIEW:  Lord of the Flies is an excellent book to teach the reader the need for rules, laws, and order to maintain a civilized society. One learns that without these ideals, we as a society will become “savages”. William Golding presents the need for laws and order to prevent chaos in an adventure story. As simply an adventure story of the experiences of boys stranded on a deserted island to the multi-layered themes and depths of plot, Lord of the Flies can be enjoyed by young adult readers to older adults.  

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, symbolism, irony.

RELATED BOOKS: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Giver by Lois Lowry, Tunnel in the Sky by Robert Heinlein, MacBeth by William Shakespeare, The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, The Crucible by Shirley Jackson, Animal Farm by George Orwell. Books by the same author: The Inheritors, Pinch Martin, The Brass Butterfly: A Play in Three Acts, Free Fall, The Spire, The Pyramid, The Scorpion God: Three Short Novels, Darkness Visible, The Paper Men, An Egyptian Journal, Close Quarters, Fire Down Below, Close Quarters, Rites of Passage

MOVIE & TV CONNECTIONS: Lord of the Flies (movie – 1963), Lord of the Flies (movie – 1990), Lost (TV series)

MUSIC CONNECTION: Iron Maiden – “Lord of the Flies”, U2 – “Shadows and Tall Tress


REVIEWED BY: Tammy Leitzel

Postcards from No Man’s Land

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Postcards from No Man’s Land

Author: Aidean Chambers

Page Length: 312

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Historical Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Jacob’s grandmother is ill, and Jacob must take a trip to Amsterdam in her place. The purpose of Jacob’s journey to Amsterdam is to see his grandfather’s (a World War II veteran) burial site. Jacob meets the elderly ailing woman who nursed his grandfather during the war and learns much more than he was expecting about his family’s past. Along the journey, Jacob discovers new friends and new feelings he never knew he had. Geertrui shares with Jacob the secrets of his grandfather’s past as she weaves the tales of their adventures during World War II. 

REVIEW: Chambers wrote a masterful story that was outside the realm of the “normal” historical fiction novel. The author does a wonderful job of blending past and present events as the chapters shift from Geertrui in the past to Jacob in the present. In the end, it is revealed that Geertrui has recorded the story for Jacob in her journal – her last act before her assisted suicide is scheduled to take place. Be warned that the book addresses Jacob’s developing awareness of his sexuality and his attraction to both men and women. Bisexuality becomes a topic among more than one of the characters. The story of the war and Geertrui’s love for Jacob’s grandfather is wonderfully told. The reader gets a realistic sense of the urgency and danger present during the war.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: sequence of events, historical connections, character traits, methods of writing, compare and contrast

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: topic of bisexuality, pages 199-200 sex between Geertrui and a married soldier

RELATED BOOKS: Breaktime, Dance on My Grave, Now I Know, The Tollbridge, The Diary of Anne Frank, Four Perfect Pebbles

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: The Diary of Anne Frank

ART CONNECTIONS: Amsterdam – Dutch Resistance Museum online

MUSIC CONNECTIONS: Hit Songs from World War 2


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

Kensuke’s Kingdom

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Kensuke’s Kingdom

Author: Michael Morpurgo

Page Length: 164

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: When Michael’s parents receive the news that they are both being laid off, his family decides to sell everything they own, buy a boat, and sail around the world. Michael and his dog, Stella Artois, set out on a grand sailing adventure. Only sailing has its downside too. Tossed overboard, no one hears Michael’s cries for help. Will he make it to land? Will he be able to survive on his own? Will he ever see his family again?

REVIEW: This story was entertaining and perhaps most teachable because of the humanization of the characters within it. The reader is able to learn and grow with Michael while also learning to see another side of the typical historical perspective of war. Kensuke is a native of Nagasaki who ended up on this island during the war and has survived there alone for many years. He fears returning to the world he knew just as he has feared for many years that his family was destroyed in the bombing of Nagasaki. This book would work well in conjunction with the World War II part of US History class. The reader also experiences the fear of change and the unknown with both characters – which makes for a great discussion topic. The story is entertaining and lends itself well to the historical connections and many other excellent and thought provoking discussion points – I would recommend this novel as a classroom read for juniors (US History students).

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

RELATED BOOKS: Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea, Dolphin Boy, Why the Whales Came, Private Peaceful, My Friend Walter


Lifting the Fog: The Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1992)

Sailing artwork –

Castaway (2000 movie starring Tom Hanks)


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

Four Perfect Pebbles A Holocaust Story

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Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story

Author: Marion Blumenthal Lazan and Lila Perl

Page Length: 128

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Autobiographical

PLOT SUMMARY: The Nazi’s are taking over everywhere from Germany, to Poland, and even Holland. Marion and her family happen to be Jewish and become caught in the web of hatred precipitated by Hitler. Every time a ray of hope shines, darkness returns to cover it. Despite the hardships of the many camps Marion spends her childhood in, she never gives up hoping that her family will one day be reunited and find freedom. Marion believes that if she can find four perfect (identical) pebbles – they will symbolize that her family can stay together no matter how trying the times.

REVIEW: This book is a riveting read. It provides a heart wrenching recollection of just how terrifying and uncertain life as a Jew in 1930s and 1940s was for many people. The survival of the Blumenthal family is miraculous yet still not untouched by tragedy. The accounts of living conditions in the camps are vividly detailed. This book would be a good accompaniment to any study of Nazi Germany, the Holocaust and World War II. This book is a must read – because every student needs to know how dark the human soul can be and why they must learn to stand for the rights of others no matter how unpopular that may seem at the time. This book could be tied into the others about bullying – Hitler was the perfect example of a bully at full power.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: historical connections, connecting text to self, connecting text to text, cause and effect, geography, plot, character traits, timeline  (full lesson plans)

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: it’s all about Nazi Germany – the atrocities of concentration camps and the diseases that resulted from unsanitary living conditions – the author tells of the stacks of body in wagon that she mistook for firewood

RELATED BOOKS: The Diary of Anne Frank, The Book Thief,  Night, The Girl in the Red Coat, In My Hands


(1) Woody Guthrie’s 1948 “Ilsa Koch” about the horrors of the Buchenwald concentration camp: “The prisoners walk the grounds / The hounds have killed a girl / The guards have shot a man / Some more have starved to death / Here comes the prisoners’ car / They dump them in the pen / They load them down the chute / The trooper cracks their skulls.” The first English-language folk song about the Holocaust?

(2) Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” from his 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin’ made reference to the Holocaust and the Cold War: “When the Second World War / Came to an end / We forgave the Germans / And we were friends / Though they murdered six million / In the ovens they fried / The Germans now too / Have God on their side.”

(3) Captain Beefheart’s 1969 “Dachau Blues” is growling, atonal, and sharp: “Dachau blues, those poor Jews / Dachau blues, those poor Jews … One madman, six million lose.”

(4) Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys’ 1973 “Ride ‘Em Jewboy” is a haunting country-and-western tribute to Holocaust victims: “Dead limbs play with ringless fingers / A melody which burns you deep inside / Oh, how the song becomes the singers / May peace be ever with you as you ride.”

(5) Rush’s “Red Sector A” is probably the best-known Holocaust rock song. It appeared on the band’s 1984 smash album Grace Under Pressure. The seeds for this harrowing rocker were planted by the liberation of lead-singer Geddy Lee’s mother from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp: “I hear the sound of gunfire at the prison gate / Are the liberators here? / Do I hope or do I fear? / For my father and my brother, it’s too late / But I must help my mother stand up straight.”

(6) The Indigo Girls’ 1994 “This Train Revised” careens like a hell-bound express: “It’s a fish white belly / A lump in the throat / Razor on the wire / Skin and bone / Piss and blood in a railroad car / 100 people / Gypsies, queers, and David’s star / This train is bound for glory / This train is bound for glory …”

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Anne Frank, Fateless, Schindler’s List


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

Climb or Die A Test of Survival

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Climb or Die: A Test of Survival

Author: Edward Myers

Page Length: 180

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Danielle and Jake have just moved with their family to Colorado. Danielle, the star athlete in the family, has just finished survival training. Jake, her younger brother, always feels like the disappointment in the family. On a family trip to their cabin, a deadly snowstorm occurs. Their car is swept off the road, and their parents are injured. With little fuel, only a small amount of food left, and parents in desperate need of medical attention, Danielle and Jake are the only hope. Do they have what it takes to survive in this weather? Will they be able to seek help in time?

REVIEW: The story was entertaining and the conflicts and emotions between the siblings was an interesting addition to the story line and will be an connection point for teens who struggle in their relationships with their own siblings. The story is suspenseful as the reader turns page after page to discover whether or not the kids can really save the day. On that note – their ability to survive a blizzard with little training and to climb a mountain with crude tools seems a little far-fetched. The story was interesting and suspenseful – just a little hard to believe.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: sequence of events, compare and contrast, character traits, timeline

RELATED BOOKS: Duck and Cover, Survival of the Fittest, Hostage, Secrets of the Rain Forest, Danger in the Desert, Adrift

MUSIC CONNECTIONS: Destiny’s Child – Survivor, Christina Aguilera – Fighter


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

Dragon Rider

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Dragon Rider

Author: Cornelia Funke

Page Length: 523

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction, Fantasy

PLOT SUMMARY: Boy and dragon meet on a quest to save the existence of the remaining dragons on Earth. Humans have decided to flood the dragon’s current homeland so the dragons must decide where to relocate if they are going to survive. Firedrake (the dragon) befriends Ben (the human runaway boy). Along with several others characters, the group travels across the world in search of the “Rim of Heaven” where the dragons may live out their lives in peace high above the clouds.

However, on their quest they are chased after by an evil-spirited dragon named Nettlebrand who is intent on destroying Firedrake. The story is jam-packed with a homunculus spy, elves, dwarves, a professor, a brownie, and others. Will Firedrake reach the “Rim of Heaven”? Does this place even exist? Will Nettlebrand get his revenge and destroy all the dragons in existence? What happens to the runaway boy?

REVIEW: Even though I am not a fan of fantasy books, I thought the characters developed in this story were great. There is continual action and the dialogue is rich. Fans of the Harry Potter series might enjoy this book.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: voice, dialogue, good vs. evil, theme

RELATED BOOKS: the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, The Thief Lord, Inkspell, and Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: (movies about dragons)

RELATED WEBSITES: (quiz) (lesson plans and website links) (discussion questions)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

Born Blue

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Born Blue

Author: Han Nolan

Page Length: 277

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Until you’ve been a foster child whose own mother will trade you for drugs, you don’t know what a hard life is. Janie does. Janie’s life has been nothing but hard times, trials, and tribulations – but, she’s blessed with an amazing gift. She has the voice of an angel – of course a career as a singer isn’t easy to come by and is all too often filled with the same elements that have made her life miserable in the first place. Will Janie have the strength to nurture her talent or will she succumb to a life of bad decisions and end up just like her mother?

REVIEW: Born Blue looks at the struggles of young Janie. Her first big memory is of drowning followed by placement with a foster family. Her friendship with a young boy got her through until her mother kidnapped her and traded her for a fix. Janie’s growing up now and learning that a life with no friends and no family is empty. She becomes bitter and disillusioned and takes to the streets. It’s all too easy for Janie to become involved with the wrong crowd. Singing like the great ladies – so famous for the blues – seems to be Janie’s only saving grace.

The book is good tool for teaching students the dangers of drug abuse and how life is a series of choices and the consequences that follow each of those choices. Janie wants to be a superstar and has a dream of recording with the greats – so many students can relate to her reaching desperately for the stars and her desire to be famous. However, Janie, because she’s been hurt along the way, hurts others too. She ends up handing her baby over to a young man as if he is the father even though he is not. He’s never told that the baby is not his (I am wary of the message this sends – even though Janie does what is best for the child in the end). Janie’s showing promise by the end of the book, but the reader has been taken through her lying, cheating, stealing, drug abuse, random sexual encounters, etc.  I would not read this as a class novel although there are many compelling issues for discussion.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: comparing text to self, compare and contrast, sequence of events, plot, cause and effect, use of dialect and its effects

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: “I left his room but I left my panties behind” (147)

“I wanted what he give me, every bit of it” (140)

Death from an overdose, sexual incidents, drug use

RELATED BOOKS: The Facts Speak for Themselves, Dancing on the Edge, Sending Me Down a Miracle, When We Were Saints, A Summer of Kings

RELATED WEBSITES:                    

REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor



Author: Kenneth Oppel

Page Length: 501

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Adventure, Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: After saving the life of a man stranded in a lone balloon, Matt Cruse returns to his duties as a poor but faithful cabin boy aboard the magnificent passenger airship, Aurora. The rescued man later dies but leaves his notebook of various sketchings and notes. Months later, Matt comes in contact with the granddaughter of the man he saved, the rich Kate DeVries. Kate has come aboard the Aurora for the sole purpose of finding out what her grandfather saw in the air on his last balloon adventure. According to her grandfather’s sketchings and notes, he came in contact with a glorious, unrecognizable, bird-like creature.

Well into the Aurora’s trip over the seas, pirates take hold of the airship, steal a number of valuables, and render the ship useless. Unbeknownst to the pirates who have fled, the Aurora crash lands on a remote island. The ship’s crew begins to repair the vessel in hopes of saving themselves. Kate takes this time to explore the flora and fauna of the island. During this time, she comes across the bones of the great winged animal her father came in contact with. This wets Kate’s appetite even more to capture additional evidence of the undiscovered creature. Since, during this time period, females were not regarded as being true explorers and scientists, Kate sets out to prove society wrong. It is also her mission to prove that her grandfather was correct in what he saw before he died.

On another venture into the island woods, Matt, Kate, and Bruce come in contact with one of the living bird creatures. Matt and Kate call the creature “cloud cat” based on its appearance and temperament. When the “cloud cat” attacks the three, they run away. Bruce is injured in the escape while Matt and Kate take off in a different direction. Then Matt and Kate come upon the same pirates that attacked the Aurora several days ago. After being captured by the pirates and sentenced to their death, Matt and Kate escape and hook back up with Bruce at the Aurora. It is here that they discover that the pirates have taken the ship hostage again. Matt, Kate, and Bruce set out to take back control of the ship and dispel the pirates. In successfully doing so, Bruce is killed.

The story then flashes forward six months. Kate is seen at a museum with the bones of her “cloud cat” on display. She hopes to settle at a university possibly in Paris. Matt has entered the flight Academy in Paris in hopes to one day return to the Aurora – his home.

REVIEW: I enjoyed this book a lot. Several chapters into reading, I felt as if it were a blend of Lord of the Flies and “Titanic”. The story was action-packed and the setting of both the giant ship, Aurora, and the island were vividly painted.

The themes of rich vs. poor, air vs. land, good vs. evil run throughout the book.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: characterization, comparison and contrast, pair this book with a reading of Lord of the Flies and a viewing of the “Titanic”.

RELATED BOOKS: Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel – sequel to Airborn

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: “Titanic” (1997), “Cast Away” (2000)

RELATED WEBSITES: (animated informational website about the book and author) (123 page literature unit packet of activities)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

August 8, 2009

A Symphony of Whales

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A Symphony of Whales

Author: Steve Schuch

Page Length: 32

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Adventure, based on true events

PLOT SUMMARY & REVIEW: What if a decade’s worth of shelter, clothing, and food supply suddenly became trapped, destined to die out and disappear forever? For the people of the Chukchi Peninsula, this source was a group of beluga whales (thousands of them).

To these people, the whale provides water-proof skins to protect them from winter’s cold, oil for their lamps, and food for themselves and their sled dogs. This community between Alaska and Russia rely on the whale’s continued health and existence for their own well-being. However, a large group of whales existence is in danger!

A Symphony of Whales is based on a true event that occurred during the winter of 1984-1985. In the story, a girl named Glashka inherits the ability to hear Narna, the voice of the whales. While guiding her sled dogs, she and the animals turn their attention to the sounds of whales and discover thousands of them trapped in the fast-freezing ice. It is understood that the whales became trapped while searching for food late in the winter.

Glashka and her people decide to radio for help from a Russian ice-breaker ship who ultimately is able to crack the frozen waters and lure the whales toward the open sea using classical music!

This a beautifully written and illustrated book that should be shared with a whole group.  

AREAS FOR TEACHING: historical context, theme (life vs. death), survival

RELATED BOOKS: Ibis: A True Whale Story by John Himmelman,

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: “Free Willy” (1993)

MUSIC CONNECTIONS: (awesome musical website by the author)

RELATED WEBSITES: (activites such as flash cards, matching, and vocabulary)

REVIEWED BY:  Kevin Stratton

January 17, 2009

Abel’s Island

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Abel’s Island

Author: William Steig

Page Length: 118

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction-Fantasy     

PLOT SUMMARY: Abelard Hassam di Chirico Flint is a wealthy mouse that is swept away in a storm while trying to retrieve his wife’s scarf.  He finds himself on an island that is across the river and down a waterfall from his home.  He immediately tries to build a raft, and then a boat, and lastly a ship, which will help him cross the river which is ravaged with high currents and waves.  None of these attempts are successful, so he is stranded on the island for a year.  He finds food, builds statues and avoids death by an owl, but Abel yearns for his loving wife and family.  After a cold winter, Gower, an old great-granddaddy frog, joins him on the island.  They become dear friends, but Gower soon feels the urge to travel home.  Abel pleads with him to send someone after him, but in Gower’s old age, he forgets about Abel. So, Abel must find new sources to aid him in his return home.

REVIEW: This is a delightful book in which the narrator creates vivid illustrations of the world in which Abel is stranded.  It is an easy read and a good book to use for descriptive writing or a comparison/contrast assignment between humans and animals.  The movie, Cast Away, could be viewed to show the comparison of how a human and a mouse adapt to being stranded on an island and what they must do to survive.

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Abel gets drunk on wine (p. 85) but for the junior high or high school student, I don’t think this element in the book would be offensive.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Descriptive writing, Symbols, Setting, Theme, Character, and Compare/Contrast

RELATED BOOKS: Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Cast Away (2000), Charlotte’s Web (2006)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

The Sign of the Beaver

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The Sign of the Beaver

Author: Elizabeth George Speare

Page Length: 135

Reading Level: 6.5

Genre: Realistic Fiction     

PLOT SUMMARY: Matt and his dad have built a cabin on their homestead land in Maine.  Matt is left alone while his dad returns to bring back his mother and sister.  After seven weeks, Matt has a visitor who steals his rifle.  Then, he runs into a beehive.  When Matt awakes, he finds that an older Indian and his son, Attean, are treating him.  Matt agrees to teach Attean to read in trade for his treatment back to good health. While teaching Attean to read, the pair bond and become good friends.  Matt also learns many survival skills from the Indians.  However, the Indians begin to fear the white people moving in and they decide to travel further north and west.  They invite Matt to move with them, but out of loyalty, he decides to wait for the return of his family.

REVIEW: This is an excellent easy to read book that focuses on a young boy becoming independent with his own survival skills in the wilderness.   The friendship that forms between Attean and Matt is genuine.  This would be a good class novel to read in conjunction with United States history in the early 1700’s. 

AREAS OF TEACHING: Theme, Point of View, Setting, Sequence of Events, and Compare/Contrast

RELATED BOOKS: Brian’s Winter, Island of the Blue Dolphins, I am Regina, Calico Captive

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: Dances with Wolves (1990)


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

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