Thursday, May 30, 2013

Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading, by Joe Greenwald

As an English teacher, I feel like I'm obligated to HATE a book that professes to guide students through a life of NOT reading, but I really enjoyed Charlie Joe Jackson's Guide to Not Reading
The book is narrated by Charlie Joe himself, a middle schooler whose reputation for not reading is his claim to fame. When this book picks up, Charlie's reputation is in jeopardy, and he may actually have to read the first book of his life. Split between narration and Charlie Joe's actual "Tips" - 25 in all - for not reading, the book chronicles his experiences and even delves into a social experiment about cliques and kids' identification with certain groups. 

I loved the book and loved Charlie's humor. For example, one of Charlie's "Tips" outlines that the library can be your friend, when you consider the movie section, the girls you can potentially pick up there, and that it's a place to text free of your parents' questions. However, he then goes on to say that it can also be your enemy, 

"Take the girl out of the equation, add your mother and your sister, and a complete lack of texting, and the library becomes a kind of hell on earth. A pit of despair. A black hole of desperation and misery." 

I (unfortunately) know that several of my students feel this way about reading and about libraries...I'd be curious to read their "Guides for Not Reading"!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

If You Find Me, by Emily Murdoch

I read this book because it was one of the "Spotlight Books" on a few weeks ago. I really enjoyed the novel, but would take caution when recommending it to my students - there was some cursing (mostly towards the end of the novel), and the main character and her sister were victims of sexual abuse.

Carey Blackburn has always been the primary caretaker of her younger sister Jenessa (Nessa). Their mother is a psychologically ill meth addict, and they live in a camper tucked away in the middle of a huge forest. No one knows they're there, and Carey and Nessa haven't been into civilization in years. Their mother goes to town on occasion for "supplies" and the random trinkets and books she brings back for them are the only connections they have to the real world.

All of that changes one day when a man and woman converge upon their campsite. The man claims to be Carey's father, and the woman is a social worker assigned to their case. Carey's world is turned upside down as she's taken into the "real" world, forced to enter high school, and face the truth about her mother.

I really loved Carey's narration and the way she talked. It just seemed so REAL and made me consider what it would be like to live in isolation for years and then be thrown into high school...scary! Also, just like I mentioned when I read Waiting to Forget a while back, this book made me ponder the blind faith children have in their parents, and how they'll do anything to defend/protect them.

Monday, May 20, 2013

This Journal Belongs to Ratchet, by Nancy J. Cavanagh

To be totally honest, I picked this book up as a joke. I have a student who is mildly (er...severely) obsessed with saying the word "ratchet." If she doesn't like something, it's ratchet. When she does like something, it's ratchet. People can be ratchet. Pencils can be ratchet. I don't really get it. Anyway, one day I stumbled across this book, and I just had to buy it!

This Journal Belongs to Ratchet is about a girl named Rachel who's nicknamed "Ratchet" because she's always helping her dad with his work as a mechanic and is, as you would infer, very good with a ratchet. Ratchet is homeschooled by her father, who's extremely environmentally conscious and not at all concerned with what others think of him. His crazy appearance/rants and the fact that they move around a lot makes Ratchet a sort of outcast, and leads her to a couple missions for the current school year: to learn more about her mom (who died when she was very young), to make new friends, and to reinvent herself with a cooler, less 'that girl shops at Goodwill' image.

The story is told through her homeschool Language Arts journal and the various writings she must do in it. For example, descriptive poetry, list poetry, narrative essays, descriptive essays, persuasive essays, freewriting, etc. All come together to form the narrative of Ratchet's journey to understanding the loss of her mother, appreciation of her father, and reinventing herself.

I am really considering ways I could use this in the classroom - all of the different writing samples could serve as really powerful mentor texts to show students how you can write about the same event from so many different angles/genres.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Beyonders: A World Without Heroes, by Brandon Mull

A World Without Heroes, the first installment of the "Beyonders" series, is not the type of book I usually read, but I'm trying to read more 'boy' books, and I really liked it.

A World Without Heroes is about Jason, an average kid from Colorado who strangely finds himself landing in a strange world called 'Lyrian' after being swallowed by a hippopotamus. Lyrian is nothing like Colorado, and almost seems like a transport back in time. It's not though, and the people of Lyrian (including wizards, 'displacers' - people who can separate parts of their body - and other magical types) are generally unhappy under the rule of their current emperor, Maldor. Maldor also happens to hate "Beyonders," or people from outside of Lyrian. It is said that there is a secret word that can kill Maldor and restore order to the kingdom, but finding this word is quite the undertaking. Jason begins the quest, thinking that eliminating Maldor is his only hope for returning home, to the Beyond. He meets up with another girl who was randomly transported to Lyrian along the way, and their quest is full of twists and turns.

I really liked the idea of the secret "Key Word" and the revelation of the word syllable-by-syllable throughout the quest. It kept me wondering and wanting to read more, even though at sometimes I thought the book got a little boring. The world of Lyrian was really well-imagined, though, and I'm curious to see what happens in the next book!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Would you help us grow our classroom library?

If I wasn't an English teacher, I think I would probably read just as much - if not more - than I do now. I think I would still read YA and middle grade fiction,'s just good stuff!

However, the real reason behind this blog and all of the books it reviews is my STUDENTS. I read for them, to be able to put good books in their hands. Many of them come from homes in which reading is not important and, in 7th grade, have not yet read a book they truly enjoy. If you are anything like me, this makes you sad. Really, really sad.

So, I read. And I recommend. And I hope that this will be the year they find a book that they just can't put down.

I buy all of my books with my own money, and they reside happily in my classroom for my students' perusal. If you ever feel inclined to help grow our classroom library and provide more opportunities for my students to get their hands on great books, please click this link: 

Know that by doing so, you will be making a seventh grader's day (as well as mine). We will be forever grateful, and if you include a name and/or address, we'll send you a thank you and feature your donation on this blog and our school's page.


Friday, May 3, 2013

The Apothecary, by Maile Meloy

The Apothecary, Maile Meloy's first novel for middle grades, wasn't exactly what I was expecting, but it was a pretty good read.

The Apothecary is set in 1952, during the Cold War, when Americans were terrified of a Communist presence, and nations around the world began experimenting with new types of weaponry, namely the atomic bomb. Main character Janie Scott's parents are put on an FBI Communist Watch List, and they find that their only hope of living a semi-normal life is by moving out of the country. So, they relocate to London, leaving Janie feeling uprooted, out of sorts, and mildly depressed. All of that changes when Janie meets a mysterious classmate named Benjamin Burrows - he sets himself apart during a bomb drill when he refuses to "duck and cover," saying that in a real bomb drill, this tiny precaution would offer no salvation. She soon learns that Benjamin's father is an apothecary with some very important secrets. Actually, he's more than an apothecary; he's an alchemist, a magician. 
Janie's connection with the Burrows men leads her on some wild adventures, exposing her to dangerous villains, unthinkable magic spells, and a sea journey. 

To be totally honest, I got kind of bored towards the end of the novel, which is strange, because that's where the most action was - it just felt a little drawn out to me, I guess. Also, aside from Janie, I felt like the characters were pretty stock. There was the adventurous heroine (Janie), the headstrong, ill-fitted-to-the-family-business boy (Benjamin), the street-urchin sidekick with a Cockney accent (Pip), and the St. Beden's school Mean Girl (Sarah Pennington). Despite the predictability of the characters, I did like the waynarrator Janie described Sarah: 

"There are Sarah Penningtons in the United States - you probably know one, I'm sure they exist in France and Thailand and Venezuela. My Sarah Pennington, at St. Beden's, was a near-perfect specimen of her kind," (20). 

There is a sequel to The Apothecary - The Apprentices - which kind of surprised me, because I felt like the novel was wrapped up completely and could stand alone. It comes out at the beginning of June, so I'll have to check it out. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Saint Louis Armstrong Beach, by Brenda Woods

I've always been a sucker for novels about New Orleans, but haven't read one in a while. This short novel by Brenda Woods gave me my New Orleans fix.
Saint Louis Armstrong Beach is not a beach, as the main character will tell you, but is his name. Coming from a long line of New Orleanians, he's named after jazz musician Louis Armstrong and his grandfather, King Daddy Saint. The author pulls you right into New Orleans's flair, and paints a vivid picture of what life in New Orleans is like, specifically in the section called Treme. 

The novel's namesake, Saint, is a young street musician who plays to make enough money to buy a new clarinet. He has a faithful sidekick, a dog named Shadow, who follows him everywhere. This dog isn't actually his, but belongs to the whole neighborhood. However, Saint is Shadow's favorite. So, when Katrina threatens and families start evacuating, Saint is determined to see Shadow to safety. Shadow is a free-spirit, a true New Orleanian, and isn't so willing to be caught. So, Saint winds up getting separated from his family and staying behind to brave out the storm with his neighbor, Miz Moran. 

In reading this book, I truly felt like I was in New Orleans, and experiencing everything right along with the characters. I was pulled in right from the first page, which began like this: 

"One thing I know for sure is that most important stuff comes in more than one part. Things like skateboards, bicycles, computers, houses, cars, and life. Life is made out of this invisible thing called time that we watch disappear into weeks, years that we track like bloodhounds or K-9 dogs, and centuries that move so slow they may as well be standing still,: (1).