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Book Reviews (scroll down or hit links to jump):


Freak the Mighty - Rodman Philbrick

    This is a novel with strong word of mouth presence. There are no foil emblems on its cover or laundry list of commendations on its back. Yet, it creates buzz among students and teachers alike. From the first page, the reader knows he is in for a different book, the author’s voice is so powerful as Max, a giant 8th grader in LD classes with a killer past. The author uses an interesting first person, present tense point of view to put you in the moment.
    In terms of genre, it is probably contemporary realistic fiction. Humor is present to offset such heavy issues as domestic violence, disability, and death. When the big lunk of a kid, Max, meets Kevin AKA Freak, a genius trapped in a physically limited body - together they become Freak the Mighty. Freak inspires Max and Max provides physical freedom for Freak as he frequently pops him up on his shoulders and they become “9 feet tall”. They handle bullies, crime, school, and other adventures until Max’s past returns to haunt him in the form of Killer Kane, his father. Freak’s courage helps Max out of physical danger, but  he is ultimately faced with his own health issues.
    The story is thick with possible themes for discussion: the role of family in all shapes, the role of disability(both physical and mental), the importance of literacy, and coping with death. Max is a dynamic character, who goes from “drooling over his comic books” to acting heroicly and writing the book we read. This is very much a book to be discussed, I would not assign it - I would probably read it aloud for the ability to flex for spontaneous discussion.


Bud, Not Buddy - Christopher Paul Curtis

    For me the first chapter of the book sets its rollicking tone - when young Bud gets the Ticonderoga pencil test and the subsequent mishaps, the reader knows he is in for a humorous ride with exceptional voice. Again, a good writer uses humor to approach the difficult topics of being an orphan, the Great Depression and being black in the 1930’s. The setting is more than decoration here - from the music to the slogans and products, the reader is taken to Michigan and its “Hoovervilles”. I love Bud’s rules for life and the pragmatic yet hopeful approach to life he takes.
    The dialog is dead-on - one of my favorite scenes is where Bud is sipping soda(with an extreme backwash problem) in Lefty Lewis’ ride. This is a scene just made to be read aloud. I like the fact that the author draws on his own family’s experience in crafting this story- it shows. The ending where Bud discovers cantankerous Herman to be his granddad rather than father is a satisfying twist, his dream ends with a place to belong as “Sleepy LaBone”. I read this book aloud to my middle school classes and I was impressed how quickly they took the perspective of Bud and identified with him. We were able to investigate a bit into the Great Depression. In using this book again, I would love to incorporate some period jazz music to complement the jam session in the book.


Holes- Louis Sachar

    Holes is an original, a modern classic that doesn’t fit neatly into the usual genre headings. Its part contemporary fiction, with a pinch of the fantastic and a dollop of historical fiction. This easily enjoyable read has a highly complex plot that manages to wrap up neatly in the end. Why is it so enjoyable? Adolescents enjoy its irreverence and humor with characters named Armpit, Barf Bag, and Mr. Sir - but the main characters are also memorable. Stanley is dynamic - a hero full of flaws. The Warden is a chilling antagonist. The setting of Camp Green Lake is vivid to the reader, with its parched wasteland pocked with holes and its yellow-spotted lizards. Throw in a love story, an escape, buried treasure and plenty of danger and it's no surprise Hollywood was interested.
    As a teacher, I selected this book as a read-a-aloud to begin my year with a new batch of jaded reluctant readers. It didn’t fail - we had lively discussions on the many themes present: not judging a book by its cover, racism, redemption and sacrifice. Holes can be as fun or as serious as you want it to be. We were able to conclude with a field trip to the Oregon Children’s Theater performance. Holes is an ideal “entry” book for those who think books offer little. By beginning the year with it, now I have students who are willing to hang on through chewier titles, reserving their disdain and joining in with reader response.


The Circuit - Francisco Jimenez

    This is an extremely powerful autobiography of a child who immigrated from Mexico and grew up as a migrant farm worker in California. The format is episodic chronological rather than continuous and ends with 8th grade when Francisco is pulled out of class by La Migra for deportation. The Pura Belpre Honor winning sequel “Breaking Out” picks up here and follows the author all the way to college. He is currently the chairman of Modern Languages and Literatures department at Santa Clara University after earning his Master’s and Ph.D. from Columbia.
    This is the emotional story of a boy crawling under the fence of the border with his family, never setting foot in a house until visiting a fifth grade friend, constantly on the move following the cotton, strawberry and grape harvests. School was a luxury, but one that Francisco seized in spite of the obstacles, studying and memorizing from his little note pad while out in the fields. It’s a story of survival and hope - the triumph of the human spirit. The story the author tells has been largely untold before.
    The book is accessible to adolescents as it is written at roughly a fifth grade reading level and as it is purposely written from the perspective of Francisco when he was that very age(no adult thoughts or reflections), it is captivating to students. The prose is easy to read, yet rich with cultural insight. There are many moments that are sure to bring tears, yet the author is a survivor and hope is always present. In the classroom this would make a prime example of biography. The theme of home is ripe for discussion as Francisco aches for the security of a place to belong.


Brian’s Winter - Gary Paulsen

    As a big fan of Hatchet, Paulsen’s Newbery Honor winner, I was intrigued with the concept of Brian’s Winter. After receiving loads of mail, about “what if” Brian Robeson had not been rescued prior to the onset of winter, Paulsen decided to write this sequel. The novel picks up with Brian having retrieved the survival packet from the plane but not tripping the homing beacon that led to his rescue at the end of Hatchet.
    I was surprised at how complete and masterful this sequel was. Paulsen’s writing is lean and taut and the action scenes involving bear and moose are riveting. the reader is quickly lost in Brian’s survival situation as struggles to contend with the need for improved shelter, clothing, firewood and food to survive the winter. Brian’s process of learning and discovery is realistic and believable. Along with Hatchet, Paulsen’s story is the definitive protagonist vs. nature struggle.
    Within the classroom, I feel that the character of Brian Robeson would make for an excellent character study, especially charting this dynamic characters growth and change over the survival experience begun in Hatchet. Certain passages represent masterful examples of nature descriptions, that students could emulate or adapt to a locale they are familiar with. Brian’s Winter stands out as a sequel that is worthy of the original. This is an empowering tale that should richly reward fans of Hatchet.


Joey Pigza Loses Control - Jack Gantos

    My first buzz through this book, from an adult perspective, focussed on the humor. The way the author uses his writing style to match Joey’s frenetic thought patterns stands out (page long paragraphs!). My second read through was with  my homeroom class, and suddenly what the students brought to the book made other facets stand out. Many could relate divorce and wanting to please their dads. A fistful related to ADHD and medication. Sadly others, alcoholism. I saw the humor as a mechanism for us to approach these tough issues. We could laugh and relate.
    Joey’s conflict is both within himself, as is referenced by the title, and with his father, who’s flaws and pressures on Joey make him the antagonist. The book is different from some more “coming of age” novels because there is no triumph at the end, other than Joey’s more realistic view of his father and perhaps better understanding of his grandmother. Joey does not win the championship or become some radically different person. He just survives. I think this works - a lot of adolescence is learning about yourself and the world and just making it through. Joey does have family that cares for him and he’s okay with receiving help for his challenges. I think (without knowing firsthand) that Gantos took a pretty good stab at depicting ADHD, it certainly resonated for some of my students. The one challenge I discovered for weaker readers is that Joey’s long stream of consciousness thoughts and dialog lacked some of the formatting relief that helps less fluent readers. This seemed to be made up for however by the use of humor which provided my students great motivation.


Slam! - Walter Dean Myers

    I ate up this first-person narrative, taking a vicarious trip to Harlem through the eyes of a teen who can get up and dunk. It helped that I love basketball myself, but even aside from that, the character of Slam was fascinating and realistic. Like many kids he feels in control in just one arena of life and has to deal with the challenges off court. Myers' characterization of Slam is exceptional, he is no flat stereotype, and no perfect hero. He is clearly in progress, developing - and as such is the kind of character young adults can relate to.
    The story is chock full of conflict, self  vs. self as Slam tries to keep his cool and improves his grades, self  vs. characters as Slam struggles to reconcile his friendship with Ice, and self  vs. society as Slam tries to “get over” and escape the confines of his ‘hood. The ending is hopeful, not because Slam has received any magic ticket out, but because he is learning. Thus, it is ultimately more satisfying than an ending that included a scholarship to play ball or a championship trophy.
    I feel the author brings his own unique skill to this story. Clearly he knows and loves basketball. Additionally,  his use of dialect through Slam gives the story an authentic voice. I can see Slam’s neighborhood and better understand those who are there.



Parrot In the Oven: mi vida - by Victor Martinez

    This gritty tale of a Chicano teen, Manny, won the 1998 Pura Belpre Award award for Latino literature. It was recommended to me by a fellow teacher at my school who is sensitive to the Latino experience. It can be described as a coming of age story that also fits the immigrant/bicultural sub genre.
    Manny deals with parental conflict, apprehension of the opposite sex, and his own socio-economic status as a Mexican - American enroute to becoming a vato firme - a guy to respect. The author Victor Martinez draws on his experience growing up in Fresno, California and has attracted the praise of Gary Soto and Sandra Cisneros for his realistic portrayal of life. Written in the first person, the voice of the character is memorable, with brief yet cutting description and street-credible dialogue.
    Despite a series of very difficult episodes, Manny eventually accepts and comes to terms with his imperfect family and charts his path between toughness and moral responsibility. In the end, he is both stronger and more sensitive and tolerant.
    I loved this book for where it took me, giving me a glimpse into the reality of life for some of my students. Yet I realized, not for any shortcomings of the book, but due to several graphic scenes (older sister’s miscarriage, gang initiation) and fairly widespread swearing, it probably would best be utilized as a reccomended book for mature readers. It is a remarkable piece of coming of age literature that serves to better reflect our diversity.



Esperanza Rising - Pam Munoz Ryan

    This “riches to rags” story has been called lyrical, and indeed I found the author’s style poetic. I appreciated the strong connection Esperanza feels to the land and each chapter heading named after a significant fruit, such as Los Aguacates (avocados - which Esperanza uses to soften her chapped hands). This story of a rich Mexican girl forced by family tragedy to immigrate, read easily. It was compelling but not heart-wrenching like The Circuit in its portrayal of migrant camps. Some of the richest scenes are those in which Esperanza sheds her rich girl attitudes and embraces hard work to help her mother and grandmother. Her relationship with Miguel the former servant, now equal is an important one.
    The novel is based on the author’s grandmother’s life story with some fictionalization. It touches on topics such as discrimination, the Great Depression, fair labor practice, and class systems. The setting in both Mexico and the San Joaquin valley is beautifully described. It is helpful to better round out the view of immigrants that the novel shares a Latina protagonist who is wealthy, educated and cultured perhaps beyond her American counterparts. This book’s high readability (4th GE) make it a good choice for literature circles that may include some slower readers without any sacrifice in substance.


The Whipping Boy - Sid Fleischman

    Gaw! The author distills a rich story full of social commentary and character improvement into micro-chapters of an especially biting wit. What’s left is the essence of a great story, trimmed of all filler. Barely 90 pages, including Peter Sis’ wonderful pen and ink illustrations, it would be a mistake to think of this story as light-weight, if by chance you saw the spine and missed the Newberry medallion.
    Prince Brat is rotten, the reader is sure of it. He displays those less attractive human traits we have all encountered. We know this guy! Jemmy gives reading and book-learning a nice plug, and shows that brains and bucks don’t always go together. One of the best parts is when he is forced to re-evaluate a changed Prince Brat - Gaw!
    The setting is rich. Without paragraphs of description, the author uses his dialogue to establish the flavor of his medieval period. Not a chapter goes by that does not have essential action and tongue in cheek humor.
    Based on these attributes, a natural conclusion is that it may be a good candidate for reluctant readers. In fact, the first time I heard this title mentioned was at a literacy conference, where the presenter explained how a particularly difficult non-reader became enticed by The Whipping Boy. In my own classroom, I appreciate the ability for struggling readers to be able to knock down chapters in whole bites. I have a classroom set, and have found the book to be effective with LD learners as long as I provide some initial scaffolding for the Old English vernacular. I found at the start,  this threw off some readers until they got the hang of it. I wish I had a fistful of titles as distilled and potent as The Whipping Boy.
   


The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle - Avi

    Wow - I was prepared for a somewhat reserved period piece and this turned into a gripping page turner. Avi has done a marvelous job of transporting the reader onto the briny deck of the Seahawk. He has stoked the imagination of someone who never thought they would have an interest in sailing vessels.
    It is  masterful the way Avi puts his female protagonist in the midst of a swashbuckler that can stand up to Treasure Island for cutthroat adventure. Outward appearances are discarded in this novel where few characters are as they seem. Charlotte begins affronted when those “beneath her station” try to get to friendly - in a few short weeks she is hacking a fistful of her hair off against the foremast, with a knife she has carried in her teeth up the rigging. Charlotte is a rich protagonist, weak at first yet strong in the end - she fights Jaggery and society’s expectations, earning a designation of “unnatural” from the Captain.
    With its colorful dialog and exciting passages, I can see this being an exciting read aloud. The theme of judging on character rather than outward appearances would make for good discussion.

The Giver - Lois Lowry

    After completing this dystopic novel, I am overcome with an urge to discuss it. This is one of those books that  you keeping gnawing at after you read it. I’m not usually a big fan of the “open” ending, but it seemed to fit in this book. It is very much a book to discuss, it engenders conversation about the buttons it presses and its implications for life and diversity. The threat of Sameness is not hard to imagine here in my suburb.
    It would seem that one of the book’s themes is that the pleasures of life are inseperable from its pain. Or another way, it is our ability to feel pain that truly allows us to value love. This is heady stuff for young adult fiction, yet the story is accessible. Jonas encounters these dilemmnas through the simple thought processes of a young adolescent who is suddenly questioning reality as he knows it. The setting is so idyllic and gentle that the clinical scene of  Jonas’ father performing a release is jarring in a way that gratuitous violence could never be.
    A second theme could be the need for intimacy with those with shared experience, a desire for friends that can relate to our own experiences. Jonas and the Giver feel so alone with their quarantined knowledge. Humans are social to bear both grief and joy.

No More Dead Dogs - Gordon Korman

    This book gets my vote for a Humorous Fiction selection. While it is probably not an enduring classic, it is certainly a unique, hilarious story with memorable characters that gives self-important “award” books a a good-natured poke in the eye. The main character, Wallace Wallace, has one fatal flaw - the inability to tell even a white lie and thus lands in trouble for his review of yet another classic where the dog dies. When he ends up getting sucked in to contributing to the stage production of the same book, the results are hilarious.
    Korman uses a risky technique of changing third-person viewpoints each chapter. It works well however, as Korman gives the reader screenplay like notice such as : “Enter Rachel Turner”. As a result, the multiple perspectives add to the hilarity of what is going on. His dialogue is on the mark and makes for much of the humor.
    Themes of  the ephemeral nature of popularity and the ability to find fulfilling challenge in pursuits other than sports are strong and would resonate with a upper el to middle school audience. Wallace Wallace’s quirky character sticks with the reader and provokes one to challenge the establishment in a constructive way.

The Samurai’s Tale - Erik Christian Haugaard

    This ALA Notable book is a fine piece of historical fiction set in feudal Japan during the time of samurais and shoguns. As it dovetails with social studies curriculum, it has been used in various seventh grade classes in my middle school. I had always encountered the book in the circumstance of trying to help a reluctant or struggling reader complete projects based on it. From this standpoint it was frustrating as the Japanese character and place names alone made it difficult. After giving it a fair read however, it is now one of my favorite pieces of historical fiction!
    Having lived and taught in Japan for three years, I turned a critical eye towards the authenticity. The author has done an excellent job with his research, true historical names and places are blended with his fiction. But what of the story?
    The protagonist Taro is barely five and has just lost his parents in the vicious attack of a rival warlord when the story opens. His own life is spared and he is relegated to the most humble servant role. His loyalty and hard work cause him to slowly rise in his social position. For Taro this cannot happen fast enough as he longs to be a samurai. The theme of adoptive fatherhood is strong as he has many mentors. He finds honor, wisdom to balance his bravery and even love in a story that has more than its share of death and battle. Throughout, a rich tapestry of cultural treasure is embedded, giving insight to the enigmatic and refined samurai, who one minute may be composing poetry and the next, lopping off heads. There are tidbits that reveal Japanese culture and philosophy even to this day , making it an informative read as well as a good story.


Bearstone - Will Hobbs

    This is a coming of age story that should especially resonate with troubled teens. 14-year old Cloyd has made his share of “poor choices” in school and group homes. In his anger he hurts Walter, an old miner turned farmer who takes him in. Cloyd discovers who he is - a Ute Indian who feels drawn to the high mountains his people lived in before being displaced by white gold miners.
    Cloyd rebels. He wants to flee society and its demands. He is sickened by hunters who kill the bears he holds sacred. He burns inside, longing for the respect of his hard work and strength and the chance to seek his dreams in the mountain peaks. Boys especially will connect with his journey to manhood and ultimate redemption. The author brings the scenery of Colorado alive with vivid description as it is viewed through Cloyd’s eyes. An interesting discussion them would be around revenge and restraint as Cloyd tastes both in his journey. In the classroom, I plan to use this book with the entire class - alternating read-aloud with pair-reads. Will Hobbs  who was once a junior high school teacher, has followed up Bearstone with two more novels that involve grizzlies in the Southwest, Beardance and Beardream.


Sarah, Plain and Tall -Patricia MacLachlan

    This book won me over in a way I wasn’t expecting. I’d heard it mentioned by teachers as an elementary standard. I’d thumbed through in the past, not really impressed. “It’s no Laura Ingalls Wilder”, I thought, applying my usual measuring stick for life on the prairie. It took a solid read through for me to get it.
    Like Whipping Boy, words aren’t wasted here, but I began to notice a lyrical quality or rhythm to MacLachlan’s prose. It is practical and without frills, but there is a rolling nature to it, reminding me of prairie grass undulating in the wind. By page two, the reader feels the ache of a missing mother and the longing for family is developed through the main characters’ simple words and actions. Family intimacy and caring are key themes that the reader empathizes with.
    I hadn’t expected to like the character of Sarah as much as I did. Her gentle, yet willful spirt made me smile as I read. She is honest and plain spoken but plays her cards close so the reader is drawn in to the suspenseful conclusion. By the end we know enough about Sarah’s character to tknow that whatever choice she makes is genuine and she will see it through. Many students can relate to the issues of family loss and including new members into a family after others have gone.