Review: George

George by Alex Gino

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the most important book I’ve read this summer-maybe the most important book since Speak. George is certain of her identity but uncertain about all her family and friends’ reactions. With the help of her friend Kelly, she is able to navigate letting the world know that she is a girl. There are so many students who need this book and families who could benefit from the insight provided by the 1st person narrative. While George is a 4th grader, any age reader could read and appreciate this book, making it an excellent crossover novel and invaluable resource. George is lucky that her best friend is so understanding and the revelation provides clarity to her brother Scott’s confusion about George’s personality. George’s “village” is slower to understand, which is realistic, and as George’s mother says, there is a long road ahead of all of them. But what a powerful message to kids that owning your identity is ok and speaking out and making oneself heard is the best way to understanding those we live with. I can’t wait to offer this book to my students and POSSIBLY help them discuss and understand that no matter how differently we are all made, it is truly important to BE WHO YOU ARE.

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Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts One and Two

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child - Parts One and Two
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Parts One and Two by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was great to be back in Harry’s world. It’s so interesting to see all the characters again and how they’ve matured as middle-aged adults versus their adolescent selves I know and love so well. The play format, staging, and stage directions add an element to the story that is new and intriguing. The story is layered in that readers relive parts of the well-loved stories we already know – adding complexity to those scenes while weaving them into Albus and Scorpius’s new adventure. The father/son dynamic is heavy here with both boys and *spoiler* there is much needed closure between Harry and Dumbledore along those lines**. Ginny and Hermione are formidable as always, with Ron (my favorite) adding much needed doses of levity and reality throughout. At times it feels like a writing exercise with Rowling et al exploring “what-ifs” in previous and future wizarding world scenarios. However, the themes of love, family, trust, and honesty that made the original series such a treasure are still present making this a great addition to the HP family.

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Back in Books

I’ve been MIA…I know. I’ve been changing jobs (gifted education specialist) and taking classes and raising kids and updating a house and doing life. Don’t worry – I’ve been reading all this time, but writing reviews and sharing my book journeys with you all has had to take a back seat to my professional changes and development. But I’m back and, while I still want to make suggestions about how to connect YA books to more classic texts, our classrooms have come a long way since I started this adventure. YA is more accepted than ever before in our nation’s schools even if it is still the “black sheep” of the literary family. I know there are still books being challenged out there, but we’re making progress. I don’t think it’s as important as it used to be to link a YA novel to a classic in order to feel like we’re justified teaching it in our classrooms.

I will continue to review books, but I’m taking a bite-sized approach to my reviews. Who needs to read all my words anyway when there are so many books out there and so little time to read them? I’m still reviewing for authors, but I’m being picky. And I’m still teaching, planning, grading, mothering, wifing, and all the other roles that go into being me. Missed being here and excited to get back in the groove.

Review: The Disappearance of Emily H.

The Disappearance of Emily H.
The Disappearance of Emily H. by Barrie Summy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book starts off with an interesting premise – a girl who can “read” other people’s memories. Originally, I thought it would be like A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd complete with gypsy lifestyle and character searching for the answer to her gift. The story quickly takes a darker turn as Raine learns that she’s living in the house of a missing girl. As a fan of fantasy, I prefer magical realism over strict realistic fiction. Raine’s memory ability is unique in the way it manifests for her with the added bonus of being an integral part of the story without taking over the focus of the narrative.

Summy does a good job of making Raine a character with depth but who doesn’t seem too mature or wise for her age. Too many times, authors give unearned and unrealistic sagacity to 13 year-old characters. Raine’s solution to her bullying problem is still a middle school solution and her decisions to keep things from the adults in her life ring true.

The most intriguing thing about the story is its eerily realistic situation. Jennifer and the Mean Girls terrorize Raine and her friend until they become shadows of themselves. Raine and Shirlee make some ill-advised decisions in trying to deal with the bullies. Michael is a creepily dangerous guy who is flying under the town’s radar. And, thankfully, the mild romantic element of the book doesn’t take over the plot. Raine is trying to decide if she’s interested in romance as many 8th graders do.

Overall, a great story and one I would recommend to anyone looking for a light mystery.

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Review: Press Play

Press Play
Press Play by Eric Devine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hazing is a real thing and as much as I didn’t want to believe it happened when I was warned of it in college, it is something of which all teachers and parents should be aware. Devine’s novel throws into harsh light the realities of hazing and bullying as well as the culture that protects and promotes such behavior. Greg is fighting an uphill battle with his weight and the bullying he must endure. It doesn’t get any easier when he tries to change himself as well as battle the jock royalty in his school. Devine tackles several difficult issues in this book with a directness that doesn’t attempt to soften the brutality of their affects on teens. Competitive parenting strategies, body-shaming, sport as religion, hierarchy of extracurricular interests (sport over film or band or drama), and multiple types of peer pressure that may not be at the forefront of such conversations are just some of the many reasons to read this book and look for anything else Devine writes.

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Review: Half Bad

Half Bad
Half Bad by Sally Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[b:Half Bad|18079804|Half Bad (The Half Bad Trilogy, #1)|Sally Green||24802827] I LOVED this book. Nathan is such a complex character and while I wanted him to be good, he is neither all one or the other, like most people. Nathan himself doesn’t even know whether he wants to be good or bad and readers see him struggle with this from the first pages of the book. Beginning with a description of Nathan’s eventual imprisonment, I was desperate to find out why he was there and whether or not his captor was really trying to help him, as she said, or not. Like any child who has been abandoned by his parents for one reason or another, Nathan’s desire to find Marcus, and his conflicted feelings about reuniting with a father who is not only the most evil dark wizard in the world, but also has abandoned Nathan and his mother, are heart-wrenchingly realistic.

As Nathan navigates the restrictions put on him by the council, the unfamiliarity with human school, and the intricacies of a budding but forbidden romance, readers’ emotions will rise and fall with his. Green has done a magnificent job with a plot packed full of complications and twists. The end of the first book is abrupt, and one is left just as confused as Nathan. I can’t wait to dive into the second book and Half Lies, an intermediate novella, as soon as I can.

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Day 1 NCTE 2014

K and I are in frigid Washington, D.C. for the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) annual convention. For the past five years this has been a tradition for us, and it has become a cornerstone of my teaching career. Kat’s mom asked both of us a few days ago what we get out of attending this conference ever year, aside from getting to see one another, of course. I dare not speak completely for Kat (she can be scary), but I know for me, my first NCTE was career-changing.

There is a camaraderie and inclusion within the organization that can only be likened to family. The passion that we all feel for our profession is palpable as one walks through the labyrinthine halls of the convention center. There is a sense, in almost every session, that it’s not about showing off what you can do, but sharing ideas with other teachers so that they too can experience the success you have experienced with that particular lesson or strategy. While Thursday is technically the first day of the convention, today was our first full day of attending sessions. Again this year, NCTE has not disappointed.

The first session I attended discussed using text and image together. As our students are more and more true digital natives, it’s important to remember that their lives have been full of constant text/image pairing. Most of them have never been alive during a time that a home computer and cell phone were not a integral part of their lives. My own son doesn’t recognize a camera with no view screen or a phone that doesn’t have a touch screen. If we don’t keep up with the technology students have at home and use it as part of their learning, we are truly failing them. The idea of blending the visual with the text makes perfect sense. They must be able to read written text, but written text alone may soon be a thing of the past.

The second session I attended was about teaching urban, or perhaps in my case “marginalized”, students to express themselves in writing. The most powerful thing I took away from this session was the idea that these students have so much to say, but don’t have the tools with which to say it. They have very little faith in themselves as learners and communicators. The ability to communicate one’s needs and desires should be a fundamental human skill. After all, one can’t succeed ORA fail if one doesn’t have the ability to comprehend and communicate the difference between the two. To quote my friend Erika, we have to teach them that the most important thing we do as humans is words.

My third session was on changing the way we question students in Language Arts classrooms. Students should be driving the inquiry in our classrooms. We need to make students think and really express what it is they want to know. Through books and writing, we can make the learning more meaningful and much more permanent if what they’re studying is what THEY are curious to know. Teacher as director of learning means that the students are learning what the teacher wants them to know. In my experience, students rarely want to know the same things as the adults in their lives. Changing the focus puts them in control and makes the teacher a resource rather than a regulator of knowledge.

Lunch and a stroll through the exhibit hall (holy crow Scholastic is MAJOR this year) led me to my final session. This one dovetailed nicely with the image session from this morning. The focus was using the selfie as a teaching tool and, while the presenters were all elementary teachers, the applications for any classroom are endless. I am already percolating ideas about selfies replacing traditional book reviews and traditional reading conferences. The possibilities are endless.

All in all, a marvelous first day here at D.C’s NCTE. My brain is full and my stomach is empty. Time to eat and recharge (me AND my electronics) for tomorrow’s infusion of awesome.