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December 19, 2010

The Dark Side of Nowhere

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The Dark Side of Nowhere by Neal Shusterman: Audio Book Cover

The Dark Side of Nowhere


Author: Neal Shusterman


Page Length: 185


Reading Level: 7


Genre: Fiction / Fantasy

PLOT SUMMARY: Jason’s anxious to shake the small town dust off his feet. Having everyone know everything about him just gets to be too much sometimes. Lately, everyone’s begun to act strangely — a weird encounter with the school janitor and now there’s a secret to protect. What’s going on in Jason’s town? Who’s involved in the cover up and what exactly are they hiding? Will Jason be able to save Paula in time?

REVIEW: This was an interesting book for teaching compositional risk (a great way to achieve a 4 on the TAKS writing). The story seems to be along the usual plot lines until Jason discovers the unthinkable — that everything isn’t what he thought it was; and, that even he isn’t who he thought he was. Once their true selves are revealed no one will ever be the same again. Paula, Jason’s crush, is in grave danger. Jason believes that change is possible, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish it. The story is entertaining from a science fiction perspective. Great student responses of their own “what if” stories could occur after reading this novel. This book is good for whole or small group discussion.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: plot, sequence, journal response, character traits, making predictions, generalizations and conclusions


RELATED BOOKS: Everlost, Unwind, The Shadow Club, The Eyes of Kid Midas, Dread Locks, Red Rider’s Hood, Full Tilt, Scorpion Shards, Thief of Souls, Shattered Sky

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: War of the Worlds (2005), Men in Black (1997), Race to the Witch Mountain (2009), Return to Witch Mountain (1978)


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor


August 30, 2009


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Author: Jan Cheripko

Page Length: 205

Reading Level: 7

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Rat loves everything about basketball –except for the fact that he is disabled and feels that he can’t play the sport on the same level as his peers. He’s still a part of the team as the manager, but one day all of that changes. Rat witnesses something he wishes he hadn’t (or maybe he is glad that he could help – he really can’t decide). Coach has his hands all over one of the cheerleaders. Rat’s the only witness and he becomes caught in the crossfire. Will he tell the truth? Will the team treat him any differently if he “rats” on the coach? How far is he willing to go for a friend?

REVIEW: This book really packs in quite a few moral lessons and dilemmas. Rat is turned against by the basketball team because he tells the truth. No one will talk to him, he’s bullied and threatened, and he can’t even get his dad to see him for who he is. The new coach changes how Rat feels about himself and his relationships. We’re introduced to not only bullying, the cold hard truth about how doing what is right is not always popular, and two characters suffer with the loss of their loved ones to cancer. The new coach of the team not only teaches the boys great plays but also teaches them the elements of successful character traits (a lesson in and of themselves). Altogether it is a nicely crafted story that should appeal to both male and female students. There are great lessons in this book and wonderful vivid discussion points about decisions, actions, and repercussions – and about believing in yourself and standing up for what you believe in. Cheripko also teaches students that everyone has heart and everyone makes mistakes – great classroom read!

AREAS FOR TEACHING: huge potential – connecting text to self, sensory images, elements of plot, cause and effect, sequence of events

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: death from cancer, bullying, intimidation, sexual harassment

RELATED BOOKS: Imitate the Tiger, Brother Bartholomew and the Apple Grove, Voices of the River


REVIEWED BY:  Dayna Taylor

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

January 17, 2009

Stay Strong

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Stay Strong

Author: Terrie Williams

Page Length: 219  

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Non-Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: The book is compiled of life lessons for teens.  It contains “real stories” of challenges and victories experienced by teens.  Also, included are quotes by students about various life situations. Tools for being successful and positive are included.  

REVIEW: Terrie Williams, an African-American woman began her career as a social worker.  She then opened a public relations business representing celebrities such as Eddie Murphy, Janet Jackson, Boys II Men, and Sean “Puffy” Combs. With teens holding a top place in her heart, she incorporates life lessons she has used to get to the top of the public relation industry into sayings and advice for them.  The book is written to address young people who want to make an impact in the world.

The book begins with a forward from Queen Latifah, and then, Ms. Williams states that “Life Ain’t Fair, but what you do does matter.”  From there, she encourages teens to make good choices, do the right thing, reach out for help, give back to the community, be honest, show gratitude, and develop relationships.

I think students would enjoy this book.  It could be read aloud by the teacher and then students could break up into groups to have discussions on appropriate actions and behaviors they should use in various social situations.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Theme, Point of View, Reading Varied Sources, Cause/Effect, and Compare/Contrast  

RELATED BOOKS: Chicken Soup for the Kid’s Soul: 101 Stories of Courage, Hope and Laughter, The Young Adult’s Guide to “Making It”: Successful Strategies for Getting and Keeping a Job, Girls Seen and Heard: 52 Lessons for Our Daughters, Stretch Your Wings:  Famous Black Quotations for Teens


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

November 3, 2008


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Author: Norah McClintock

Page Length: 100

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Fiction, Mystery     

PLOT SUMMARY: David and his mother are awakened in the night by Detective Antonelli to learn that Phil, David’s stepfather has been killed.  David becomes a prime suspect with a weak alibi.  Cameras videoed him within a block of the scene of the accident minutes before the murder took place.  His mother finds his dead brother’s picture that Phil always carried in David’s jean pocket.  Even she begins to suspect David of the killing.  David faces the choice of telling the truth or lying to protect his mom’s feelings.

REVIEW: This is a fast, easy to read mystery that kept my attention throughout the book.  The reluctant reader would get a great introduction to mystery and suspense novels by reading this book.

AREAS OF TEACHING: Conflict, Sequence of Events, Foreshadowing, and Character

RELATED BOOKS: Bang, Over the Edge, Snitch

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

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 11, 2008

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night

Author: Mark Haddon      

Page Length: 226

Reading Level: 8

Genre: Fiction        

PLOT SUMMARY: Christopher John Frances Boone narrated the story.  As it begins, Christopher has just discovered Ms. Shear’s dog, Wellington, dead in her yard.  Christopher, then, introduces himself to the reader stating that he knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and also, every prime number up to 7057.

The reader will note that the chapters in the book are numbered by prime numbers because Christopher prefers prime numbers to ordinal numbers. Christopher continues the story as he explains the events of the rest of the night in which he was taken to jail on suspicion of killing the dog.  In addition, he writes about his thought processes, his visits with Siobhan, and his relationship with his father and the death of this mother.

Christopher cannot let the death of Wellington go unsolved.  He questions neighbors, Ms. Shears, and his father to see if they might be able to help solve the mystery, but no one has any answers.  When Christopher’s father reads his book and learns of his investigation, he becomes angry and starts shouting at Chris.  The next day Chris can’t find his book.  He looks for it everywhere and when he enters his dad’s room to search, he finds evidence that his dad has not been truthful with him about his mother’s death.

A new investigation begins . . . 

REVIEW:  After reading the first two chapters of the book, it is easy to detect that Christopher is not a normal 15-year-old boy.  He is extremely intelligent, but has very low social and communication skills.  He has a very typical personality of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of Autism).

I found this book not only entertaining and intriguing, but very informative of the characteristics of Asperger’s.  Because of the reading level, it may be too difficult for the typical student in a resource class, but for those who do have high reading levels, I think they would enjoy and relate to Christopher.  It is a great book for teacher’s to read.  It helps one understand the behaviors and thought processes of a child with this disease.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Character, Sequence of Events, Conflict, and Setting

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: Strong Language p. 81-81, 127, 160,184

RELATED BOOKS: One Child, Thinking in Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life with Autism, A Spot of Bother

RELATED WEBSITES:…/The_Curious_Incident_of_the_Dog_in_the_Night-time

REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

August 10, 2008

Max the Mighty

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Max the Mighty

Author: Rodman Philbrick

Page Length: 166

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Realistic Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: It has been a year since Kevin, Max’s best friend, passed away.  Max is, again, living a lonely life until he sees some boys harassing an 11-year-old girl.  Because of his size, not his demeanor, he scares the boys away, and becomes the hero of Rachel.  Rachel has the nickname of “Worm” because she always has her face in a book.

Worm and Max meet for the second time in the park.  Her mother is wary of Max because of his large size.  After Worm assures her mother that Max is “okay”, her stepfather, the Undertaker drives by and forces Worm and her mom to get in the car with him.  Worm runs back to Max and hands him one of her books, which has her home address in it.  Now, Worm is suspicious.  The Undertaker dresses in black and goes around the town shouting that he is from God and he knows the “Truth”. 

Reluctantly, Max walks to Worm’s house in the address.  There, he witnesses the Undertaker physically abusing Worm’s mom.  He loses control, and bursts through the house, taking Worm away.  This seems like a heroic move, but Max is accused of kidnapping and assault by the Undertaker and is now a fugitive.

Worm convinces Max that if she can just get to Chivalry, Montana, her real dad will be able to help her get away from the Undertaker.  So the twosome, Max the Mighty and Worm, start for Montana.  On their trip, they encounter several colorful characters and build a bond of friendship. 

REVIEW: Rodman Philbrick does an excellent job of writing in the sequel to Freak the Mighty.  He presents new, colorful characters and expands Max’s character into one with more confidence after the passing of Kevin. 

The theme that is developed is one of truth and is used by The Undertaker, Max and Worm (p. 18, 23, 23, 71, 79, 83, and 166). He, also, gives great descriptions of his characters and their dialogues.  It is very easy for the reader to visualize these characters and also the various settings visited as Max and Worm travel across the United States.

This is another book that I would recommend for all ages. 

AREAS FOR TEACHING: Sequence of Events, Theme, Character, Conflict, Setting

RELATED BOOKS: Freak the Mighty, Maniac Mc Gee, Walk Two Moons, Others See Us

MOVIE CONNECTIONS: “The Mighty” (1998)


REVIEWED BY: Shirley Wagner

May 1, 2008

No More Dead Dogs

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No More Dead Dogs

Author: Gordon Korman

Page Length: 180

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY #1: Wallace is a popular eighth grader with only one fault: he only tells the truth. Unfortunately, some people just aren’t ready to hear the truth. Wallace’s bad luck begins when he writes a review of his English teacher’s favorite book. Wallace hates the book and Mr. Fogelman hates his review. He sentences Wallace to detention until he turns in an acceptable review. Detention is held in the auditorium where drama practice is taking place. The drama club happens to be performing the play of the book (Old Shep, My Pal) Wallace had to review. Wallace begins to make suggestions for the performance and before long everyone is listening to him instead of Mr. Fogelman.

Strange things have begun to happen during rehearsals It seems as if someone is trying to sabotage the play. All eyes are on Wallace, but Wallace suspects his football teammates who are anxiously awaiting his glorious return to practice. After all, Wallace is the hero of the football team whose brilliant play clinched a title game (what everyone forgets is that Wallace sits the bench 80% of the time – he knows he is no football great, but no one else seems to realize it).

Rumors circulate because Parker Schmidt only ever gets part of the facts before he embellishes the story he prints in the paper. The play begins to develop and Wallace finds that he is in no hurry to return to football practice. Trudi, an actress in the play, falls for Wallace and can’t wait to be his girlfriend. Her best friend, Rachel, can’t wait for Wallace’s sabotage of the play to be discovered. He disgusts her and she can’t wait to see him go. The big night is drawing near; the show is sold out, and the play and its cast may be in danger. Can Wallace discover the truth and save the show? Will everyone else learn to see Wallace for who he really is?

REVIEW #1: This book was cute and entertaining. I enjoyed how the chapters switched view points between the characters. Rachel’s letters to Julia Roberts were also a great technique for introducing her feelings about Wallace (the reader figures how she feels before she does). The fact that Wallace Wallace can not tell a lie leads the reader to question truths and lies – what they mean and where the line is drawn. Friendships are restored and Wallace perseveres through being abandoned by his teammates and being a suspect among the drama club. The ending is good and Wallace is an admirable character.

REVIEW & PLOT SUMMARY #2: Wallace Wallace (last name same as the first), hero of his school football team, is a chronic truth teller. He is unable to tell a lie which sometimes makes life a little uncomfortable. When his eighth-grade English teacher assigns a book review on Old Shep, My Pal, Wallace follows the assignment to the letter giving his absolute honest opinion; he hated it. Unfortunately for Wallace, Old Shep, My Pal is his teacher’s all time favorite book and Mr. Fogelman can’t understand how anyone could dislike such a classic. Wallace however is sick and tired of reading books where the dog dies in the end and he refuses to change his report to the point of earning detention, which also gets him suspended from the football team.


The book makes the point that sometimes there is a valid reason to rebel. Wallace stands behind his conviction and makes a reasonable argument to his teacher saying he knew the dog was going to die before he even read the book because, “…the dog always dies. Go to the library and pick out a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover. Trust me, that dog is going down.” He then lists several examples as his classmates begin to chime in, much to the teacher’s distress.


Wallace’s teacher is also directing the school play which is, no surprise, Old Shep, My Pal, and Wallace has to serve his detention by sitting in on play rehearsals.  Wallace never changes his mind as Mr. Fogelman hopes, but he does get involved with the play and ends up making changes to it that include rollerblades, a moped and a rock-and-roll band called The Dead Mangoes. 


What appealed to me about this book, aside from the humor, is that Wallace is never mean or disrespectful. He doesn’t try to change the play out of spite. Rather, he honestly thinks it could be better and the cast members agree with him. He even finally wins over Mr. Fogelman while staying true to himself. He is willing to accept whatever consequence he receives because he believes in himself. I think kids will get the point as well as enjoying the story.


AREAS FOR TEACHING: point of view, organization of text, voice, mood, character traits, plot

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: mild language – Wallace Wallace is referred to as “dumbass, dumbass”

RELATED BOOKS: Swindle, Schooled, Kidnapped, The Climb


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor & Sherry Hall

April 29, 2008

Midnight Magic

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Midnight Magic

Author: Avi

Page Length: 247

Reading Level: 4

Genre: Fantasy

PLOT SUMMARY: Mangus, the magician, has been banned by King Claudio from practicing all forms of magic. He now lives quietly with his wife Sophia and his servant boy Fabrizio. One late evening, Mangus is summoned to King Claudio’s castle and escorted there by the king’s trusted advisor, Count Scarazoni. Upon arrival, the king orders Mangus to free his daughter, Princess Teresina, from a haunting ghost in the castle. Mangus tells the king that he no longer practices or believes in magic. In response, the king tells Mangus that he shall either help his daughter or die. (In the king’s mind, a marriage between Princess Teresina and Count Scarazoni must occur soon).

Conspiracy resides all throughout the kingdom. Princess Teresina feels that the ghostly image she encounters at night is her murdered brother (prince and heir to the throne). But we find out that the prince is actually alive and aiding the princess in the downfall of Scarazoni (who think the prince is dead). We also see an eager Count Scarazoni excited about his impending marriage to Princess Teresina. With an official marriage, Scarazoni would eventually claim the throne himself. Perhaps Scarazoni has had something to do with the “death” of the prince! On a larger scale, the citizens of Pergamontio want to see the downfall of Count Scarazoni! They feel he would be an evil leader.

Now Mangus is unaware of most of this initially because people in this story keep many things secret. They hide in secret, they talk in secret, they do things in secret. Mangus believes there has to be a reason for the ghostly images and that magic is not the answer. Rather he uses his skill of reasoning to deduce the answers throughout the book and finally comes to an answer that the “ghost” is Princess Teresina herself and her mother, the Queen (page 197).

However, Mangus does not make this knowledge public yet. During a riveting “magic show” to convince the king and Scarazoni that there is a “ghost”, Count Scarazoni reveals to all that he was the man who orchestrated an assassination on the prince. The count now has been exposed as the murderer and evil man all of Pergamontio has believed.   

REVIEW: This book was an easy-read. I am glad that it was because there were a lot of plot twists and turns. The story line kept me guessing. I did not predict that the Queen was involved in the conspiracy. The author, Avi, is a great story-teller.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: characterization, foreshadowing, theme, conflict, similes (page 17), vocabulary (sentries, parapet, portcullis, etc.), pages 82-83 and 100-101 are helpful in understanding the story

RELATED WEBSITES: (excellent site to teach the TEKS of characterization, theme, foreshadowing, and conflict)

REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

April 23, 2008


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Author: Angela Johnson

Page Length: 138

Reading Level: 5

Genre: Fiction

PLOT SUMMARY: Fourteen year old Marley loves her life in Heaven, Ohio. She has a loving brother, Butchy and Momma and Pops by her side. Uncle Jack drifts from place to place with his dog, Boy. He writes Marley beautiful letters of his adventures and his hopes for her. Everything seems perfect in Heaven; yet, outside of Heaven, there is turmoil as churches are being burned. One day a letter arrives in the  mail asking for records of baby Monna’s baptism. Marley discovers that she is baby Monna and that Momma and Pops aren’t really her parents after all. Marley’s world is turned upside down when she discovers that her mother died when she was a baby and her father has never quite recovered. She finds solace in her friendships with Shuggy and Bobby. Marley withdraws because she feels betrayed; Momma, Pops, and “Uncle” Jack have withheld the truth all these years. Yet, Marley learns that love makes a family – and that her family has only acted out of love all along.   

REVIEW: This book was very touching. Not only does the reader experience the raw emotions of Marley who is angry that she was not told the truth, but we also experience the love and support of those around her. Uncle Jack’s letters reveal the depths of his emotions that he has not been able to express in person. Bobby becomes a strong role model for young men – he is raising his daughter all on his own and overcoming the obstacles of the past. Shuggy’s life looks perfect – yet we learn that things are not always as they seem. The characters were strong and excellently developed. The ending is beautiful (you might even get a little teary eyed). I would recommend this book as a read for all students. Heaven was the recipient of a Coretta Scott King Award.

AREAS FOR TEACHING: literary techniques: flashback, metaphors “It was one of those nights that started to go down before the sun did.”, writing styles: letters, theme, setting, characters, writing about secrets (why do we have them?)


RELATED BOOKS: The First Part Last, A Cool Moonlight, Maniac Magee

MOVIE, MUSIC, ART CONNECTIONS: Les Miserables, Michael W. Smith: Place in this World


REVIEWED BY: Dayna Taylor

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