Review: George

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.

View all my reviews

Advertisements

Review: Winger

Winger
Winger by Andrew Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Excellent look into the mind of an adolescent boy in all his sexually charged, self-doubting glory. Ryan Dean is endearing and aggravating at the same time. The Annie plot-line is predictable but sprinkled with good banter. The conflict involving Joey builds subtly for the second half of the book while Smith does some superb distraction with JP. West’s eventual self-actualization is a bit far-fetched for a 14 year-old but the fallout from the climax hits home. Learned a bit about rugby and how little guys and girls really differ emotionally. Can’t wait to get my hands on Standoff.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

Review: All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Finch is the kind of guy all teens are simultaneously hopeful and fearful they will fall in love with. He is unique, bordering on strange. He is the “bad boy” with good intentions. He is the cliche of the overlooked, misunderstood smart kid who manages to NOT be a cliche. Violet LONGS to be the cliche she was before her sister’s death: cheerleader, popular, snobbish, privileged. A death-wish brings them together and neither one will ever be the same, for better or worse, because of their meeting.

Violet and Finch’s story is full of humor and heartache. Niven has created a fractured kid in Finch who longs to be whole again. Violet is struggling to find a new normal and feel whole after losing her best friend-sister. In Finch, Violet finds the shove she needs to “get back on the camel”. He asks the questions everyone else is afraid to ask and won’t let her squirm out of answering. Violet gives Finch the beauty and acceptance he’s been looking for since long before his father left. The two of them find in each other that conditional but engulfing acceptance of first, true love that will leave them changed for the rest of their lives.

I spent the two and a half days reading this marveling over the quotable lines and humor provided by Finch. He has a wisdom that seems to always come with a skewed perspective on life. People who live as bright and hot and immediate as Finch seem to light up the dark corners that those of us at normal speed seem to miss. Much like Pudge looking for the Great Perhaps, Finch and Violet are looking for All the Bright Places that will remind them that they’re alive and young and infinite. The world in which Finch lives is one that I want to create for myself and my children and my students.

Ultimately heartbreaking (I did the ugly cry), Finch and Violet’s story spirals with the “impending, weightless doom” of the Blue Flash. Through the split narration, readers see both sides of their journey and the ways in which we lie to one another and to ourselves. But it leaves readers with the sense that wandering, experiencing, and loving are the keys to truly finding your path.

SIMILAR TITLES: Looking for Alaska by John Green, Papertowns by John Green, Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas, Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

Five Middle Grade Books to Confront Bullying

Bullying is about as old as school itself. I see it everyday in all of its sneaky permutations. Middle school is the worst. These kids, new to teen life, are trying in every way to fit in and find their place in the hierarchy that is secondary school. This negotiation of power is always part of finding that niche that carries one through high school. Bullying becomes part of the negotiation when one person or one group uses the power to make themselves feel better than or more than. And in this digital age, bullying has become so much more than stealing someone’s lunch money. Anonymous emails and text messages are just the tip of the iceberg in the ways bullies can target and alienate their victims.

The world of middle grade and young adult literature has been full of bullies for years. Now that bullying is becoming more complex, authors are responding by writing more complex tales of bullying, its effects, and its consequences-be they good or bad. Here are five middle grade titles that deal with bullying and the myriad ways children and adults are enduring, permitting, or combating this old enemy.

WONDER by R. J. Palacio

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

August Pullman was born with a facial deformity that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. WONDER, now a #1 New York Times bestseller and included on the Texas Bluebonnet Award master list, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.

“Wonder is the best kids’ book of the year,” said Emily Bazelon, senior editor at Slate.com and author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. In a world where bullying among young people is an epidemic, this is a refreshing new narrative full of heart and hope. R.J. Palacio has called her debut novel “a meditation on kindness” —indeed, every reader will come away with a greater appreciation for the simple courage of friendship. Auggie is a hero to root for, a diamond in the rough who proves that you can’t blend in when you were born to stand out.

THE MISFITS by James Howe

What do a 12-year-old student who moonlights as a tie salesman, a tall, outspoken girl, a gay middle schooler and a kid branded as a hooligan have in common? Best friends for years, they’ve all been the target of cruel name-calling and now that they’re in seventh grade, they’re not about to take it any more. In this hilarious and poignant novel, Howe (Bunnicula; The Watcher) focuses on the quietest of the bunch, overweight Bobby Goodspeed (the tie salesman), showing how he evolves from nerd to hero when he starts speaking his mind. Addie (the outspoken girl) decides that the four of them should run against more popular peers in the upcoming student council election. But her lofty ideals and rabble-rousing speeches make the wrong kind of waves, offending fellow classmates, teachers and the principal. It is not until softer-spoken Bobby says what’s in his heart about nicknames and taunts that people begin to listen and take notice, granting their respect for the boy they used to call “Lardo” and “Fluff.” The four “misfits” are slightly larger than life wiser than their years, worldlier than the smalltown setting would suggest, and remarkably well-adjusted but there remains much authenticity in the story’s message about preadolescent stereotyping and the devastating effects of degrading labels. An upbeat, reassuring novel that encourages preteens and teens to celebrate their individuality.

HOUND DOG TRUE by LINDA URBAN

“Do not let a mop sit overnight in water. Fix things before they get too big for fixing.” Fifth-grader Mattie Breen writes it all down. She has just one week to convince Uncle Potluck to take her on as his custodial apprentice before school starts. As his apprentice, she’ll have important work to do during lunch and recess . . . work that will keep her safely away from other fifth-graders. But when Mattie’s plans come crashing down, she ends up with a friend who is hound dog true.

THE CLIQUE by Lisi Harrison

Massie Block: With her glossy brunette bob and laser-whitened smile, Massie is the uncontested ruler of The Clique and the rest of the social scene at Octavian Country Day School, an exclusive private girls’ school in Westchester County, New York. Massie knows you’d give anything to be just like her.

Dylan Marvil: Massie’s second in command who divides her time between sucking up to Massie and sucking down Atkins Diet shakes.

Alicia Rivera: As sneaky as she is beautiful, Alicia floats easily under adult radar because she seems so “sweet.” Would love to take Massie’s throne one day. Just might.

Kristen Gregory: She’s smart, hardworking, and will insult you to tears faster than you can say “my haircut isn’t ugly!”

Enter Claire Lyons, the new girls from Florida in Keds and two-year-old Gap overalls, who is clearly not Clique material. Unfortunately for her, Claire’s family is staying in the guesthouse on Massie’s family’s huge estate while they look for a new home. Claire’s future looks worse than a bad Prada knockoff. But with a little luck and a lot of scheming, Claire might just come up smelling like Chanel No. 19. . . .

The Clique . . . the only thing harder than getting in is staying in.

COLD WATER by Billie A. Williams

The school was already quiet and had that certain kind of feeling empty places have like the ghosts of everyone in the past lined the walls watching you. Zip was silently hoping against hope that he could just walk home to find a warm cooked meal, no gangs, his mother all cleaned up and smiling, waiting for him. Instead, his mother was carted off to a psychiatric hospital and his only choices were homeless or foster home. He chose in an instant when he saw the worker from Child Protective Services charging across the walk toward him. Homeless wasn’t the problem. He’d been that before. Bullying gangs, survival and freedom were on his mind now.

Flashback Friday: RAINBOW BOYS by Alex Sanchez

TITLE: Rainbow Boys

AUTHOR: Alex Sanchez

PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

LENGTH: 272 pages

ORIGINAL PUBLISH DATE: May 1, 2003

SUMMARY: (via amazon.com)

Jason Carrillo is a jock with a steady girlfriend, but he can’t stop dreaming about sex…with other guys. Kyle Meeks doesn’t look gay, but he is. And he hopes he never has to tell anyone — especially his parents. Nelson Glassman is “out” to the entire world, but he can’t tell the boy he loves that he wants to be more than just friends.Three teenage boys, coming of age and out of the closet. In a revealing debut novel that percolates with passion and wit, Alex Sanchez follows these very different high-school seniors as their struggles with sexuality and intolerance draw them into a triangle of love, betrayal, and ultimately, friendship.

REVIEW: Sanchez’s first book in this series packs a wallop. Besides the fact that the entire book is based on Jason trying to decide if the emotions he’s feeling really mean that he’s gay, the book also tackles homophobia, alcoholism, bullying, physical abuse, and causal adolescent sex. Just looking at the list is enough to make one think twice about picking it up. However, the engaging thing about this book that wrestles with so many polarizing issues is that the story is so real and heartfelt. Sanchez characterizes each boy with truth and openness. Even Jason, who is struggling to come to terms with who he really is seems like a boy readers might be going to high school with right now.

The setting is an everyplace high school with typical kids and cliques. The sinister thing is the normalcy of the peer groups surrounding the three boys. There’s nothing really Evil about any of the kids who sneer at “faggots” or warn others against the “queers”. Those of us still in the education trenches see these behaviors every day and when one bad seed is eradicated it seems two more spring up in its place. Rainbow Boys shows the prevalence of homophobia and the  bullying that accompanies it. When natural fear of “other” or “not-like-me” builds into ridicule and judgement, it is difficult to know how to stop it. What seems a normal developmental aversion to people who are “not like you” becomes twisted and ugly when fear and rejection are given power rather than tolerance and compassion.

Sanchez’s handling of the family dynamics in each boy’s home is realistic and while Jason’s mother’s defiance seems a little conveniently timed, it is a realistic (if speedy) depiction of the road alcoholic’s families must travel to break the cycle of addiction and codependency. I liked that Sanchez didn’t tie all of that up in a nice bow. The mother’s stand seemed coincidental enough as it was to have everything turn out so nicely.

And take the homosexuality out of the story and there are still great themes threaded throughout the story. Discovering one’s identity and purpose on the way to post high school pursuits is something every teen struggles with. Realizing your first love doesn’t love you and that loving yourself is more important is a giant step toward becoming independent. Staying true to yourself in spite of detractors or social pressure is something even adults struggle with and Sanchez handles them all with realism and heart. While not a read for every student, this is definitely one I would hand to readers struggling to find themselves in a world of so many options.