As part of my independent reading program, I’m constantly reading middle grades (MG) and young adult (YA) fiction so I can recommend books and discuss them with my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade reading students. I do new book reviews every Monday and try to compile them all in one place here. Right now, it’s a mess, but one of these days (SUMMER?!) I plan to organize this section for you.
You already know that I’m a fan of her Al Capone series. This book is not historical fiction but realistic fiction rather and is told from two alternating perspectives (is that the new trend now or what?). Kirsten McKenna doesn’t fit in at her snobby private school because she is overweight and has family problems. Walk (Walker) Jones doesn’t fit in at the same school because he is black. These two somehow accidentally become friends, then discover a secret that rocks both of their worlds!
The first time I actually listened to this one on audiobook, and as I was mopping the floor the “secret” came out in my headphones and I stopped mopping and exclaimed, “OH MY GAWD!!!” and my kids (my own) freaked out thinking something was wrong! So I truly enjoyed this book MYSELF and really like seeing my students’ reactions when they stumble upon the “secret.”
What I love so much about this book is that it feels so *real* – you know the kind. The everyday middle school situations portrayed in this book are so realistic that it took me back to middle school which was NOT a good time in my life! Here’s a little excerpt. You need to know that Kirsten is insecure about being overweight (and she is quite a bit) and Brianna is the queen bee of the popular girls.
Brianna looks at me, pizza in hand. “Oh my god, I am so fat! Look at this, you guys.” Brianna lifts up her shirt to show her perfectly flat, tanned stomach with a diamond-pierced navel. “Don’t you think I’m fat? I’m going to have to lose ten pounds before the talent show.”
Rory jumps in. “No, you look great.”
“I’d give anything for a stomach like that,” Lauren agrees.
“Me too,” Maya says.
“Hey, want to work out tonight?” Madison suggests. “My dad just got a new ab cruncher.”
“Wait,” Brianna says. “I want to know what Kirsten thinks. Don’t you think I’m fat, Kirsten?”
“No,” I say, zipping up my lunch bag.
“I know. Let’s see who’s fatter. Kirsten, let’s see your belly. Come on. Mine’s fatter, I swear to god, Kirsten. Don’t you swear, Rory?”
“Well, I, uh…,” Rory wheezes.
“Come on, Kirsten.” Brianna looks around the crowded cafeteria. “No one’s even looking. No one’s going to see but us. And I’m going to lose. I swear I will.”
“Brianna, cut it out,” Madison whispers. “My mother will kill me if…”
“If what?” Brianna turns on her.
“You know.” Madison rocks her head from side to side. At first I think she’s standing up for me, but then I realize she just doesn’t trust me not to tell my mother.”
“Kirsten’s not going to run home and tell her mommy, are you, Kirsten?” Brianna asks.
I want to leave, but I’m stuck to my seat. I look at the clock. Lunch is almost over. If only the bell will ring.
“I think Kirsten’s too thin.” Brianna can barely contain herself. “So here.” She hands me the rest of her pizza and bursts out laughing. “Fatten up.”
The pizza is in front of me. The cheese is all melty, just the way I like it. My stomach grumbles. I imagine sinking my teeth into it.
“Look, she’s going to eat it,” Brianna whispers.
I toss the pizza in the garbage can fast and pretend with all my heart that Brianna was wrong.
Have you read it? What’d you think about it? If you haven’t.. add it to your list, along with the others I keep telling you to add!
Eight of my 6th graders are reading this book now with their literature circles!
This week, I’m finishing up my last novel study this year with my 8th graders, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor.
No matter how many times I’ve taught a novel, I always read a little ahead each year I teach it again. This weekend, I finished up this book (probably for my 4th or 5th read) and I find myself thinking that it’s so much better than I even remember!
Civil rights issues have always been a favorite teaching topic of mine regardless of the grade I was teaching at the time. I teach The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 with my 7th graders. It’s fabulous historical fiction but the best part of The Watsons is the figurative language I can teach with it. The problem with The Watsons is that it’s just too lighthearted to deal in depth with tough issues.
That’s why I’m so glad to be reading this book with my 8th graders. Roll of Thunder is so much more serious than The Watsons and really puts into perspective what things were like in the south in the 1930’s. The book is a glimpse into the life of a hard-working African-American family living in Mississippi during the Great Depression. Enduring the hardships that most Americans are facing is compounded by racial tensions in the south. As you read the book, you fall in love with the Logan family and admire the way they stand up for what they believe is right and have self-respect for themselves and show it to others who deserve it (and even some who don’t), rising above the hatred and oppression to stick to their morals and principles.
My 8th graders have already been shocked and horrified at some of the events in the book and it has sparked some great open discussions. I find myself becoming more and more bold each year with tough topics like this one, and I can see that my students appreciate being able to talk openly about subjects that are usually taboo.
Onto another book with a serious subject of another nature – Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin.
I’m currently using this book as a choice for my 7th grade lit circles, but I’m careful about the students I assign to this group since the subject matter is a bit mature. Although there’s nothing sexually inappropriate (which is usually the reason for my censorship) and the language isn’t obscene enough for a ban, the mere issues in the book make it for mature 7th graders and up. This is the book for you to hand to your realistic fiction readers that like edgy and controversial books.
In The Rules of Survival, Matthew spends his time trying to protect his two younger sisters from their abusive mother. The problem with her abuse is that it isn’t QUITE BAD ENOUGH to call the authorities and get the children taken away, and Matthew realizes that. He feels trapped and lost and at times helpless in protecting his sisters. When his mother starts dating Murdoch, things are better than ever! But Matthew knew the fairy tale couldn’t last, and when Murdoch inevitably breaks up with his mother, things are worse than ever. How will Matthew protect his sisters? I’m telling you… this one is soooooo good!
I started reading The Great Gatsby this week. One of my 8th graders read it and asked me to read it and then two of you indicated it as your favorite historical fiction novel. I’m about 1/4 way though the book, and to be honest, I’m having quite a difficult time with it. So far, there’s a lot of dialogue, background information, and dinner parties. I’m hoping I can get more into it!
You knew it was coming.. I FINALLY finished Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys.
I have to say that it NEVER takes me two weeks to read a book. Granted, this one was very long, but that’s still a long time for me. I also paused and squeezed another book in the middle. But in the end, I think it was just meant to be that I was finishing up this book while at TLA because I had the AMAZING fortune to meet Ruta Sepetys TWICE while I was there and discuss the book with her. It’s such an amazing coincidence because when I started the book, I had no idea I’d be meeting her in a couple of weeks!
Out of the Easy is a historical fiction novel set in New Orleans in the 1950’s. The main character, Josie, is the 17 year old daughter of a French Quarter prostitute. Josie is ashamed of her mother, ashamed of her family history (or lack there-of), and dreams about going to college in the northeast where no one would know about her family ties. She has no idea who her father is and was basically raised by the madam of the whore house, Willie, and several of the other prostitutes, including Sweetie and Sadie and Evangeline. She lives in a small apartment above a bookstore where she has worked for years while also cleaning the whore house as a side job. Josie somehow finds herself involved when a young businessman is murdered in the French Quarter.
SO, based on the synopsis above, you’re probably wondering about the genre of the book, right? Yeah, me too. It’s categorized as young adult fiction, but the whore house bit is a lot for me to swallow. Of course, I won’t be putting this book on my middle school classroom bookshelf, but I might recommend it to some of my 8th grade girls whose mothers I know won’t come beating down my door at night. It’s excellent historical fiction and I’d recommend it to any girl ages 14 and up. Although there are numerous references to prostitution throughout, there’s no explicit sex and really nothing overly explicit at all.
Here’s what I got to tell Ms. Sepetys MYSELF:
She did a fabulous job writing about New Orleans and all of the references and cultural stuff is RIGHT ON. Being from Louisiana, I have read several books that were set here and all of them annoyed me by getting it wrong and being OVER THE TOP and too much with the Louisiana stuff… but this one did NOT! When I told her that, she said it was the best compliment! 🙂
I also got to tell her that this book was very personal to me. While my mother was not a French Quarter prostitute, she was a bartender my whole life and I totally identified with a main character who grew up constantly surrounded by these types of “sleazy” people and yearned to make my life better. *I* was the book-nerd daughter who overcame her past and made something better for herself. As a writer, Ms. Sepetys totally got the emotions and feelings of my situation right. I can’t say it enough.. this book is SO well written!
So while I was initially skeptical about this book and how DIFFERENT it is from her first novel, Between Shades of Gray, I truly ended up loving this gem of a book!
I hope you do too, and I’d like to help you get there! I’m giving away a signed copy of Out of the Easy with this post! Simply follow my blog comment on this post and tell me what your favorite historical fiction novel is and I’ll employ the random number picker to find a winner!
And BY THE WAY, *my* favorite historical fiction novel is actually two novels. That’s allowed here since one is a companion novel to the other! The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now are at the top of my list and I’ll review those titles another day.
While at TLA, I also got to attend a breakfast where Jack Gantos was the keynote speaker. He’s an AMAZING speaker – so REAL and he’s HILARIOUS! I read Dead End in Norvelt after it won the Newbery and it was honestly just OK for me.
Historical fiction set during the Cold War and Vietnam years is usually my favorite type, but this one wouldn’t make the top of my list. So much of the book seemed (have I said this before?) OVER-THE-TOP! I was fascinated to learn during the breakfast just how much of the book was taken from Jack’s actual life! If you’re familiar with the book, then you’ll probably be surprised to know that all of the following was taken from Jack’s actual life as a child:
– his dad actually built an airplane from a kit and flew it around town
– he really did have the nosebleeds
– the whole incident with the Japanese fighter pilot rifle actually happened!
– his mother grew the garden and used it to feed the elderly
– all the bits about Eleanor Roosevelt and her founding of the town were true
– the old lady with the arthritis (sorry, forgot her name) was a real person, and Jack’s mother really did lend him out to the neighbors (and her!)
– the whole grim reaper bit and the old lady telling him to come back in two weeks actually happened
So there were a few more I’m sure but that’s what I remember. Interesting, right? It was still just OK fiction for me, and to be honest, the students I’ve given the book to didn’t like it all that much. That being said, I’ll probably read the sequel when it comes out.
I’ll talk about ONE more for today! Right Behind You by Gail Giles
YES, of COURSE I enjoyed meeting this author at TLA too! Gail Giles was speaking at the very first author’s forum I went to on Wednesday evening when we first arrived. She’s an older lady but SOOOOO funny and I really enjoyed hearing her speak about her books, specifically Right Behind You.
This book is about a 9 year old boy named Kip who does something VERY awful in the first chapter of the book – he sets another boy on fire and kills him. The rest of the book is about Kip’s life after this event. I won’t spoil it for you any more than I’m about to, but I can tell you this… every student I hand this book to finishes it. I especially like to give it to my boy reluctant readers. Here’s what Gail Giles had to say about writing the book:
She’s addicted to Court TV and was watching the trial of a 12 year old boy who was tried for murder and found guilty as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. It bothered her that a 12 year old boy could be held accountable by a jury of his “peers” when they were all adults. Her insistence was that there should have been AT LEAST ONE 12 year old boy on the jury, and I do agree with her. But she wrote this book to right that wrong. She wanted to take a young boy, have him do something awful, and then show how he can (and the struggles of) rehabilitating your life after something like that happens. And she did a WONDERFUL JOB! Of course I’m telling you about this book because there is absolutely nothing too violent or sexual in this book to keep it off my middle school shelves. So the next time you are looking for something to interest those reluctant readers (or something great for yourself!), pick up Right Behind You by Gail Giles.
This week I finished reading Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick.
Actually, this one was on audiobook, so I suppose I just finished listening to it. Anyway, it was great. I have to say that the narrator, Joel Johnstone, is one of my favorite male narrators. He “does” a young teenage boy perfectly. He is also the narrator for The Wednesday Wars audiobook, which is probably the main reason I love him so. Anyway, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie is well-written, funny, and heartfelt. The main character, Steven, is an 8th grade boy whose younger brother, Jeffrey, is diagnosed with cancer. I love how honest the book feels when Steven is torn between being annoyed by his brother, feeling guilty about the annoyance, and having pity on him.
My 12 year old son, Tyler, just finished reading this book for his Book Club class. I feel like I should say here that it is an enrichment class he did not sign up for because he “really doesn’t like to read that much.” He told me this book was really good and I should read it. A book with the Tyler Seal of Approval MUST be something good since he doesn’t approve of a whole lot! I think it’s such a great middle grades boy book because the male protagonist is so honest about his feelings and they are very relatable – and funny.
As for the teachability aspect of this book, what I noticed the most was the excellent use of various types of figurative language. I thought there were so many examples that were so well written. Here’s one: “With my braces, I looked like I tried to swallow a train wreck.” I’ll use this example in class, because I can sure picture that one! The elements of plot were easy to follow, so this would be a good book to break down. Also, the author does an excellent job of characterizing the protagonist, faults and all, so a character analysis would work well, too.
There is definitely no questionable content or language in the book that would keep it off my bookshelf. I’m going to try to use this book for literature circles in the future!
I started reading Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys.
I haven’t read much, but I’ve definitely read enough of it to know that it’s NOT anything like her first novel, Between Shades of Gray. I’m not sure if I like it yet. More on this one next week.
Back to Between Shades of Gray.
When I first saw Between Shades of Gray in the Scholastic Book Clubs catalog, I was honestly shocked and outraged. How could Scholastic market a book that sounded so much like that.. err.. “other” book? So I of course ignored it. Then, as my class was watching the monthly Scholastic Book Talks, I saw it featured there. It was only then that I found out it was a historical fiction novel about the deportation of thousands of people from Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia by the Soviet Union during WWII. I recently became intrigued by the horrors of WWII experienced by people in the Soviet Union, especially after reading Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah. I had been on a Kristin Hannah kick last summer and stumbled upon that little gem by accident, leading me to do more research and find out more about what was going on in the Soviet Union during WWII. So, I swallowed my pride and bought Between Shades of Gray despite the title. It was good enough, and I enjoyed it enough, but the first time I read it, it seemed too upbeat. Here’s a girl, Lina, whose father was arrested and is “missing,” whose mother and little brother have been deported along with her to Siberia to some sort of labor camp, experiencing all the same horrors that the Jewish people did on the deportation trains. And yet the tone of the book was positive and upbeat. Even after an important character dies from the elements, the book’s tone remained too upbeat for me. So I finished the book feeling disappointed, like it wasn’t serious enough.
Still, I put the book on my shelf in the historical fiction section and forgot about it. Then, one girl checked the book out, read it, and started telling her friends. It quickly became a sensation in my classroom library like not many books do. Apparently, Ruta Sepetys knew what she was doing when she selected this upbeat tone for the book. Tweens and teens like reading books that are of a serious nature but are not TOO heavy, and this book fits the bill. So, I had to go back and read it a second time through their perspective. It remains one of my more popular books, and though it will never be one of my favorites, I’m thankful that the students are checking out historical fiction and enjoying it!
Monday, April 8th
I just finished up this book on Sunday.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
First of all, I was really excited when I first started reading this book because I just *knew* it was going to be fabulous. Last week, one of my favorite 8th grade boys came up to me on duty, put the book in my hands, and simply said “read it.” I’m constantly reading books recommended by my students (and them by me). This particular student seems to enjoy the same types of books that I do (edgy realistic fiction mostly), so I had high hopes.
Well, it did dissapoint. I just wasn’t riveted. I wasn’t that interested in the plot. It hasn’t been THAT long since I was in high school, and while I do think my high school experiences were pretty liberal, I can’t seem to remember quite as much drugs or homosexual encounters. This book definitely won’t be earning a spot on my middle school shelf because of just that – an abundance of sex, sexual discussion, and drugs. I rated this book 3 stars on Goodreads, and it would have been lower if my 8th grade boys didn’t love it so much. I doubt I’ll be watching this movie.
Now here’s a better book for middle and high school boys:
I Am a Seal Team Six Warrior by Howard E. Wasdin
This book contains an abundance of war action to keep the boys reading with a healthy dose of “doing the right thing.” Since it is written for a young adult audience, I didn’t get caught up in the technical lingo of the military and your students shouldn’t either. Towards the end of the book, the author gets caught up in the Battle of Mogadishu, a battle fought in Somalia in 1993 that involved many American casualties. I had never even HEARD of this, and after discussing it with my husband, we sat and watched “Blackhawk Down,” an excellent movie about the battle. I tell all of the boys that return this book to me to go and watch the movie.
An added bonus is that this book is actually nonfiction and a great autobiography that isn’t typical or boring. I highly recommended it for ANYONE and it’s my standard go-to gift for teenage boys.
Next up on my reading list is Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick. It’s been on my to-read list for a while and I had to download it this weekend for my 12 year old son to finish for Book Club at school.
The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han
The book I just finished is The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han.
This book is part of a trilogy, but I just read the first book. First (and most importantly), the book is totally clean. No sex and I can’t even remember any cursing. The main character, Belly, is 15 and crushing on two brothers, Conrad and Jeremiah, who share a summer house with her. Conrad is very attractive, mysterious, and hard to get. Jeremiah is the sweet, nice, and fun brother.
I found out about this book when one of my 7th grade girls donated it to my classroom library. (The going rate for a book donation is 2 jolly ranchers!) Soon after, others began checking out the book like mad. I now have multiple copies of the trilogy and a waiting list since I can’t keep up with the demand.
I highly recommend this book to any boy-crazy middle school girl in grades 5-8! I picked it up at my local Books-a-Million on the teen bargains shelf for only $2.97.