Monday, June 11, 2018

Far from the Tree by Robin Benway

This National Book Award Winner about three young people affected by adoption is a lovely story with complex relationships and diverse characters. The protagonists are three biological siblings who find each other as teenagers and forget relationships at a time in their lives when they need each other for different reasons. Grace has recently given up her own baby for adoption and is grieving the loss, Maya has a family that loves her but her mom is dealing with alcoholism, and Joaquin has been a foster child for 18 years and can't bring himself to trust that his current foster parents really will stay with him permanently. The book explores these three teens and how they navigate their adoptive families, their bio siblings, and the issue of looking for their biological mother. It's a rich story, recommended for high school libraries.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Spy School by Stuart Gibbs

Ben is recruited for the CIA's top secret spy school due to his advanced math skills, but it turns out that he wass not really chosen for his abilities. He's a pawn in someone's game, and when an assassin comes after him, he is thrust into some serious espionage. He is aided by Erica, a 15-year-old student who kicks some serious butt as a spy. Reading this out loud to my daughter I was struck by some sexism--I could do without Stuart Gibbs' descriptions of girls (all spy girls don't really have to be "hot", do they?), but like his other books (Space Case, Belly Up) they are fun mysteries with underdog protagonists (and pretty sophisticated vocabulary). Sixth graders love these books, as does my own fourth grader (a hard-to-please girl). I enjoyed reading this aloud to her and trying to figure out who the mole was going to be.

Flight Season by Marie Marquardt

This is the story of three college-aged young people--Vivi, reeling from her father's death and about to fail out of an Ivy League school, TJ, working hard in the family restaurant while trying to get a nursing degree, and Angel--Guatemalan immigrant with a terminal illness, a biting sense of humor, and no one to love him. Angel sees the budding romance between Vivi and TJ, who are both working on his hospital wing, but it takes a while for Vivi and TJ to connect. The whole story is strung together by Vivi's sightings and observations about the birds that have been practically speaking to her since her father's death. It's a romance with a social conscience, and a good story in its own right. I highly recommend this gem of a novel by an insightful author with a passion for telling the stories of immigrants.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Amal is a bright girl who loves school. In the beginning of the book her education is interrupted by the birth of a sibling--as the oldest girl in her Pakistani family she is expected to stay home and help her mother. However, things get worse when she defies a stranger in the streets and discovers that the stranger is a powerful local ruler. The man forces her to work as a servant at his estate, taking her away from her family and putting her in a life of indentured servitude. Amal makes the best of her circumstances, but always holds out hope that she will one day continue her education, go to college, and achieve her dreams. Amal's culture and situation will likely be new to many readers, and this is an eye-opening introduction for middle grade and middle school readers. Highly recommended--especially where students are learning about human rights.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

How to Disappear by Sharon Huss Roat

Vicky Decker, a high school sophomore, has a lot of social anxiety and one good friend, Jenna. Unfortunatley, Jenna has moved away and Vicky is spending all of her time alone, afraid to even say hello to classmates or speak in class. In the safety of her own bedroom, she creates an Instagram personality named Vicurious, and Photoshops herself into all kinds of settings. Without really trying, Vicky becomes an internet heroine to people who feel alone and ignored. At the same time, she opens up to a few people at school, including a boy who sites next to her in a class and the yearbook staff members who see her talent with photo editing. Vicky's story is compelling and real, and compulsively readable. It deals with some of the usual YA lit issues, but Vicky is a character to root for and relate to and the Instagram fame makes the story really stand out. Definitely recommended for readers looking for a book with romance, friendship, and mental health issues.

Monday, November 27, 2017

All's Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

This fantastic graphic novel combines the fantasy world of a Renaissance Faire with the sometimes harsh reality of middle school. Imogene has grown up among the actors at the Renaissance Faire, and she is now old enough to take on a real role for herself as a squire. At the same time, she is bravely choosing to go to school for the first time in her life (she's been home schooled by her mom). Chapters alternate between her life as a squire and her life in middle school, where she is befriended by some popular girls. She's constantly insecure, though, never sure if she's saying the right thing or wearing the right thing. She's also not doing her science homework and lying to her parents about it. This book is heartfelt and charming, and ultimately has a lot to say about how to recover from the mistakes that you make along the way. Highly recommended for middle schoolers (and younger kids as well).

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani

I'm so excited about this beautiful graphic novel about a mystical shawl that leads an American girl on a voyage to meet her relatives in India. The book alternates between black and white and color to show when the magical pashmina is in charge. Anyone could enjoy this story, but it will especially appeal to students who are first or second generation Americans. Priyanka's voyage of discovery comes full circle in a wonderful way and I don't want to say any more and ruin the story. (Don't miss the glossary in the back if you don't understand all the Indian terms.)

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Will, a 15-year-old, has never shot a gun in his life, but he's on an elevator with a loaded gun, intent on following the neighborhood rules: no crying, no snitching, and get revenge. His brother has just been shot and Will is on his way to confront the killer. This story takes place in the 60 seconds he is on the elevator heading down to the street. At each floor someone from his past gets on the elevator and asks him a difficult question. This book is beautifully written, completely engrossing, and totally accessible to middle and high school students. Counselors, teachers, and anyone who works with kids should read it and find ways to talk about it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Starr is a 16-year-old girl living in two worlds. Her neighborhood, where her Dad runs the local grocery store, is what some people would call the ghetto. Her prep school, where she has both female friends and a serious boyfriend, is populated with mostly privileged white students. Starr lives in both worlds, but when she takes a ride from an old friend who is then shot by a white police officer, Starr must make difficult decisions about how to stand up for justice and how to reveal her true self to her school friends. This book successfully navigates between big racial issues and the small details of life. Starr and her family and friends are complicated characters that make mistakes and also make good decisions. As a reader, I became invested in Starr and her parents and their everyday struggles as well as their larger struggles against a system stacked against them. This book is brilliantly written and deserves the National Book Award nomination that it has received. Recommended for 8th grade through adult readers.

Kalahari by Jessica Khoury

This science fiction action-adventure is set in the very real Kalahari semi-desert in Botswana, where the Sarah lives with her father who is a conversation researcher. In order to fund his research, her father has brought a group of 5 teenagers to  experience life in the Kalahari. Sarah, who is not  an outgoing person, must take care of the newly arrived teenagers while her father goes off to confront some wildlife poachers. When her father doesn't return, Sarah and the teens embark on a treacherous journey to find her father and get themselves to safety. It's too much of a spoiler to explain how this book becomes a science fiction story, but it does and it involves human meddling in genetics. It's a fast-paced story that will appeal to students who love wildlife and nature and science, as well as kids who just like action-adventure books.

Nyxia by Scott Reingten

This dystopian book is a huge favorite at my school this year. It's the story of a multinational group of kids who are going to a distant planet to mine a valuable substance called Nyxia. The teenagers have been promised a huge amount of money in exchange for three years of their lives, but it's not until they are on the spaceship that they find out that only some of them will actually get to mine for Nyxia and get the huge financial payout they were promised. Emmett's mother is ill and he desperately needs the money for her to get treatment. He joins into the sometimes violent competition, but begins to question how far he can go to win at the expense of the other competitors. The book is action-packed and full of twists and turns. The worst thing about this book is that we have to wait a whole year to find out what happens next. Highly recommended for fans of dystopian fiction. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Switched by Gordon Korman

Chase has a head injury and has lost his memory. He doesn't know anything about himself, but when he returns to school he discovers that some kids are downright scared of him. It turns out he was a football player as well as a jerk and a bully. But now he feels more comfortable in the video club and volunteering at a nursing home. But can a person make a totally clean start? Restart is classic Gordon Korman--he takes a fun premise, and gives readers a lot to laugh about and think about. This book will fly off the shelves of a middle school library.

Refugee by Alan Gratz

Refugee is a timely and moving book that will be perfect for middle school book clubs, language arts and social studies classes, and kids looking for an action-packed read. It traces the stories of three children living in different time periods who become refugees for a variety of reasons. Josef is a Jewish boy from Germany whose family is on a ship seeking refuge in Cuba; Mahmoud is a modern-day Syrian boy from Aleppo whose family must leave on foot when their home is bombed; and Isabel is a Cuban girl whose father is wanted by Fidel Castro's government in the early 1990s. The story alternates between each child and their increasingly harrowing journeys toward a better life, all of which involve travel over water at some point. Allan Gratz's books are already popular in my library, and this one is flying off the shelves. Recommended for grades 6-adult and definitely for teachers interested in human rights education.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017 Library Orientation

As I begin my 20th year in a school library, I find myself more excited about my job than ever and the possibilities for students to take charge of their own learning. I am responsible for library orientation for 36 middle school ELA classes and I was determined to do a activity. With much thanks to Julie Hembree's Breakout to Checkout, I created a breakout activity using one breakout box that could be used over and over with very little set up time between classes. This activity worked well with all levels of classes, from gifted to ESOL to special education.

The Set Up

1. The Box: One breakout box with 6 locks on it. I used a word lock, a directional lock, two 3-digit locks, a 4-digit lock, and a key lock. I put bookmarks in the box along with a "We Broke Out" sign.

2. The Tables: Our classes are large so I needed 6 teams in order to get the kids into groups of 5 or fewer students. Each of the 6 tables in the library had a large mailing envelope and a pencil on it. On the outside of the envelope were basic instructions and a list of stations to visit in order. Inside the envelope was a clue sheet that they would see only after traveling to 6 stations and picking up information. There was invisible ink written on all but one of the clue sheets.

Each team has one of these envelopes on their table

3. The Stations: Students traveled to 6 stations in the library to pick up information and to do a task. My stations were

  • Circulation Desk
  • LibraryTrac (a laptop where students use LibraryTrac to sign in)
  • Computers
  • Creative Space
  • Nonfiction
  • Fiction
Students picking up information at one of the 6 stations

At each station I had an envelope with identical slips of paper in it. The slips of paper gave all the library information I would normally give in orientation. The tasks were simple and some of the information gathered contributed to their ability to open their locks. Teams took one piece of paper at each station and ended up with six papers in the end.

The Game

As classes came in I had the ELA teachers distribute the students evenly between six tables to form six teams. (Teams of 2 or 3 are ideal but it worked with teams of 5 also.) I told the students that the library is a place for inquiry and problem solving and that they had a challenge to complete. My story was that someone had locked all the bookmarks in the box and we had 20 minutes to break in or no bookmarks today. I explained that it was not a race between teams, but we only won if all the groups got their locks off. I told them what kinds of locks were on the box and that each team would open one lock. I then pointed out that their team envelope had a list of stations on it in order. Each team was told to travel together to each station and take out a piece of paper from the envelope there. They were instructed to read it aloud then do the task on the paper before moving to the next station. After they collected all 6 papers, they could return to their table with their papers and open the envelope. Each envelope had a clue to opening one lock. At that point they had to solve a puzzle or realize that they needed a "tool" which was a UV flashlight to read the invisible ink.

Colored envelopes went one to a team, smaller envelopes were placed at the various stations around the library


I ended up doing this activity with 24 classes of seventh and eighth graders. In every class students were engaged and no class (even the ESOL students) got fewer than 4 locks off. Some groups worked harder than others, but no groups in any class gave up and quit trying. Many classes succeeded in breaking out. After seeing the game in action, I decided to do something different with my sixth graders only because they are new to the school and I wanted a little less chaos on their first visit. I plan to do a breakout with them on their second library visit.

My documents are here. You can see the labels for the outside of the envelopes, the handouts for the stations, and my notes sheet of how each lock was solved. Feel free to borrow and modify to suit your library and let me know how it goes.

Friday, April 28, 2017

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

There are many YA novels about unlikely couples that make you fall in love with them and then break your heart (and by you, I mean you the reader). This is one of them, but you will love Violet and Finch so much that you will happily go along for the ride. They meet on top of the school bell tower, both contemplating suicide. Finch, the misfit kid, actually talks Violet off the ledge (literally), but later lets Violet take the credit for saving his life. Violet, a previously popular girl, has been traumatized by a car accident that took her sister's life and spared her own. Finch is sarcastic, intelligent, and perceptive, but suffers from bipolar disorder. His family either doesn't see the problem or refuses to acknowledge it, and in spite of many cries for help, he never gets the support he needs. Finch immediately is drawn to Violet, but has to convince her that he is worth her time (as he is the target of harassment at school he isn't immediately seen as boyfriend material). As they wander around Indiana for a school project, it's clear that they are going to fall in love and that it's not going to be easy. It seemed formulaic at first, but with characters so well fleshed out, who cares? If you like The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor and Park (both compelling teen relationship books), you will definitely want to read All the Bright Places. Recommended for high school students-up.