Saturday, March 28, 2009

Teen Book Festival

I just found out about a Teen Book Festival (thanks Book Girl!) that will be in Rochester, NY next weekend. Check out the information at A great list of authors will be presenting, including Ellen Hopkins, Sharon Flake, David Levithan, Chris Van Etten and lots more. All I need to do is arrange a baby-sitter (my daughter is a little too young for this just yet...) and I'm there!

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

Categories: dystopia, survival, humanity, war, poverty, class issues, children, brutality, relationships, romance
Grade: B+
(Especially since this is YA Lit, a stronger message of redemption and hope is needed to push it into the "A" range for me).

This book took me much longer than I had anticipated to read, mostly due to my incredibly busy schedule, but also partly due to how uncomfortable this book was to read! I should preface this review with the fact that my curriculum coordinator (my boss, essentially) asked me to read this book because one of the eighth grade teachers wanted to use it in class. My response was to ask the age of the protagonist, since matching the age of the audience with the age of the main character is usually the easiest and quickest way to determine the appropriateness. Katniss is 16, so I had some serious reservations. Honestly, reading the book has upheld those reservations.

Classroom applications aside for a moment, this is a very well-done book. It's captivating, and honestly, a little too realistic for my taste. The fact that it is so riveting is in itself disconcerting. I'm not comfortable with realistic fiction that depicts children fighting to the death in a government-sponsored (and required) "sport." I don't want any sense of realism attached to this concept, and that's why this book is uncomfortable. That's also why it's good - it's nothing if not convincing. The fact that it's set in the indeterminate future did not actually make me feel any better - if anything, that's more disturbing and almost more realistic. The thought of a film version is frightening, since I don't want to add any further level of reality. That said, Katniss and Peeta are very well-developed, concrete characters, and the imagery is striking (also problemental for me - again with the uncomfortable realism). I enjoyed Rue's character quite a bit and thought her situation was handled well. I have to admit, however, and I'm not necessarily a glass-half-full kind of reader, but I really thought there would somehow be a more redemptive end, something that could circumvent the inevitable, so my disappointment that The Hunger Games were carried out as usual (with only one small, though noteworthy exception) added to my horror of the concept. The "wolves" at the end of the book were terrifying, and frankly, unforgiveable.

It's no doubt that my review of this book is filtered through the lens of a high school English teacher and by my original intention of determining if this book is appropriate for 8th graders (13-year-olds). I maintain that it isn't, unless they're very mature readers. At a higher level, in high school, it could absolutely be paired with 1984, Animal Farm or other similar books and perhaps do a much more effective job of prompting critical thinking about government control, humanity and survival.

Will I read the sequel? Yes. I do root for Katniss and Peeta and I do want to know what becomes of them. I'm also secretly hoping for some more thoroughly embedded optimism, or at least a shred of hope in the next book, so I will stay tuned. But will I let my daughter read this before she's a teenager? Absolutely not. This one will definitely be shelved on the adult end of the Young Adult shelf.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


I'm still reading Hunger Games, but this week has been so crazy that I've only had a few minutes to spare here and there to read. Unfortunately yesterday my husband came down with a really nasty case of the flu, and the only positive part of that is the nearly four hours we spent at Urgent Care that gave me some unexpected time to read. Of course I'm all but a single parent at home while he recovers, so it still might be a few days before I have time to finish. My student teacher starts this week, so hopefully that'll lighten my work load a bit as well. I'm on the fence with Hunger Games right now. It's well written and it's beyond engaging, but it's also really uncomfortable. I want to keep reading because I want to know what's going to happen, but at the same time, I really don't! These are kids!- and as the Hunger Games continue, more of them are going to die. I knew this from the outset, and of course I have some working theories about how some of that outcome might be abated, but still... ugh. It's heavy, so I'm really hoping there is some redemption to be found. That's one of the main things I look for in YA Lit - no matter what the subject, I think teens (and adults, really) need some sense of redemption. Hopefully I'll finish soon and give my full review.

On a brighter note, my professional development workshop on using Young Adult Literature in the Content Area was on Friday, and it went really well. We didn't have quite the across-the-content turnout as we'd hoped - no math teachers and only one science teacher came - but we did have a lot of English, Social Studies, Special Education teachers and librarians come. They all seemed really receptive to the titles and strategies we presented, so hopefully we managed to give YA a boost into our curriculum across the district.

I'm still (always) looking for titles you think would work well in schools - middle and high school level - so keep the suggestions coming!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Book trailers & YA Lit

I've been working on coming up with assignment ideas to really make YA books come alive in my classroom. As book bloggers are well aware, book trailers are becoming increasingly popular, especially with YA books. I think this could translate well as a classroom activity and a much more engaging assignment for students than a traditional book review or even a book talk. I think for the next independent reading assignment or lit circle reading assignment, I'm going to show students some book trailers, and maybe even movie trailers to get the point across. Then, their assignment will be to create a book trailer of their own, using powerpoint, photostory, windows movie maker, i-movie etc. I'll set up a screening party the day the assignment is due, and each student or group can show their trailer. The class could then rate the trailers with movie ratings - thumbs up/down, how likely they are to read the book based on the trailer etc. Hopefully by allowing the assignment to translate into multimedia terms that the students already engage with, it'll create more interest in not only the assignment, but in the book as well.

An example that I think will get the students' attention, from P.C. Cast. (I'm having trouble figuring out how to upload the video. For now, here's the link - )

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Favorite memoir?

My student teacher starts next week, and she's teaching Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir Night to my 10th graders. She'd like to start off by introducing the topic of memoirs and get the kids thinking about what they'd put in their own memoir. We want to show the students some examples of great memoirs (just excerpts - a page or two), but I want to help her to find examples that the kids will really find interesting. I'd like to start a memoir reading list to use not only to introduce the concept, but also to offer my students some suggestions once they've finished this unit, in case they're intrigued by the genre.
So I figured it's worth asking - do you have any memoirs you particularly like? Anything that you think 15 and 16-year-old kids would enjoy? Please share! Thanks!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
categories: coming of age, male relationships, culture, Native Americans, poverty, high school, anorexia, basketball, hope, alcoholism, despair, death, cartoons
Grade: A

I just finished the book and I'm blown away. This short, quick read of a novel had more of an impact on me than anything I've read in a long time. While I expected Alexie to have brilliant insight into Indian issues, I wasn't expecting his brilliantly original, authentic, funny insight into teenage boys. Arnold Spirit is a lovable, dorky, sweet, intelligent, moving narrator - a better voice is impossible to imagine for this novel. It's amazing how absolutely heart-breaking and absolutely funny this novel is at the same time. The cartoons are an awesome addition - they are more telling than Arnold's written desription at times, and add a level of sweet humor that make Arnold that much more endearing. I highly recommend this endearing, sad, sweet, paradoxically hopeless and hopeful book.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Realm of Possibility

The Realm of Possibility, David Levithan
categories: coming of age, book in verse, alternating narrators, romance, gay/lesbian
Grade: A-

This book has been on my list of books to read for a while now, and I'm so glad I did! Levithan accomplishes a few things of note to an English teacher. First, he manages to write an entirely coherent, beautiful book entirely in various types of verse. My favorite is "the day," Jamie's chapter in which he details, excruciatingly well, the difficulty of making it through the day after his girlfriend has broken up with him. Levithan walks the reader through the day alphabetically, each stanza taking on the next letter of the alphabet, not stalling or getting too caught up in the plot device, but instead becoming better for it. The "t" stanza starts every line with "the" and goes through the entire alphabet again. Another device of note for those looking for literary techniques is the alternating narrators. Each chapter is a different narrator, and yet the stories begin to entertwine more and more as the book progresses. It is a bit difficult to keep track of who is talking and how they fit into the greater story, but a little extra reflection solves this problem relatively easily.
Overall, a brilliant book. It could easily be read and used as a whole or in parts, as each chapter stands alone and yet the book in its entirety is equally as strong.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of Katherines - John Green
categories: coming of age, comedy, romance, friendships (boy), travels, transition to college
Grade: B/B+

First, let me say that I am definitely a fan of John Green - we use his Looking for Alaska as our 12th grade summer reading title. So I don't feel quite as bad admitting that I was really prompted to read this book for the workshop I'm giving next week on YA Lit in the Content Area and I needed another math book. That said - this is a great book! (even though it does have math throughout it...)
I like the interesting combination of characters - Colin is a complex protagonist, though I have to admit that his social peculiarity seemed a bit too strong for him to have dated 19 girls. He sounded much more like Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nite-Time, a character battling Aspberger's. His relationship with Lindsey does seem fairly realistic, though I enjoyed his friendship with Hassan much more.
While I'm not sure how accurate the math is, it is entirely understandable, even for an English teacher like myself. The Appendix with the math explanation is also great - it's a wonderful plot technique, since the story can exist without it but is so much better for the inclusion.
Overall, it's a strong story - my favorite of Green's so far.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Persepolis 1 & 2

Persepolis 1 & 2
categories: graphic novel, contemporary & historical fiction, girl power
Grade: A-

This was my first forray into graphic novels and I found both books really appealing. Marjane Satrapi's images really compliment her narrative, and at times, tell the story in a much more compelling, stark way than her words. Seeing such a harrowing time in Iran's history through the eyes of a teenage girl make the story that much more intriguing, and she somehow manages to keep a comic undertone when so many of the situations she describes are anything but funny.
Both books are quick reads, so I highly recommend them both.
Marjane Satrapi is actually coming to Syracuse at the end of the month, to the Rosamund Gifford Lecture series, so I'm hoping I'll get to hear some of her stories in person.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Hunger Games?

Thanks so much for all of the YA Lit suggestions you've been sending me. Our presentation is nearing completion, but by all means, please continue to send me titles as you think of them.

For those of you who have read it, I'm curious your thoughts on Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. Some middle-level teachers in my district would like to use it with 7th - 8th graders. What do you think about the appropriateness of the book for that age level.

It's on my list of things to read and I'm hoping to get to it soon, but I'd love to hear what you think.