In My Mailbox (1)

In My Mailbox is a weekly meme hosted by The Story Siren. It’s a way for people to share what books they have received that week (or recently). I figured I’d join in eventually, so why not now?

Christopher Paul Curtis is coming to my local bookstore on Tuesday, so I had to go pick up his latest so I could read it (and then get it signed!).

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

While there, I found three others I’ve been meaning to pick up for a while:

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann

Before any of this, though, I stopped by the science lab in our school to talk with the science teacher, Sister Rebecca. She LOVES to read and has a decent classroom library in the lab (how cool is that?!). I helped myself to a few of her books that I’ve been wanting to read:

Rules by Cynthia Lord

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko

The whole gang together:

We had a snow day Friday, so I’ve been getting some good reading in this weekend. Enjoy the week, everyone!

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How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

When some of my trusted book reviewer friends love a book and my students begin to pass it around, I know it’s time to check it out for myself. How to Save a Life definitely fits these criteria (side note: is it bad I need to look up criteria/criterion every time I use it? I hope not.). Plus, look at the title. And check out that cover. They scream awesome realistic fiction YA to me.

Jill is your average 17-year old girl. She has a basic job (bookstore clerk [my dream job after teacher]), an on-again-off-again boyfriend (Dylan, who seems to pretend to be a bad boy, but totally isn’t), her eyebrow is pierced in a small piece of rebellion, and her dad — who is basically the older, adult, male version of her — died a year ago in a car accident. Okay so. . .maybe Jill isn’t your average 17-year old.

Jill’s mom, Robin, has decided she needs to adopt a baby. Nevermind that Jill is her only child, her husband is dead and she’s in her 50s. She’s going to do this. It’s not as much of a whim as it sounds: Mac (the aforementioned deceased dad/husband) and Robin had talked quite a bit about adopting before he died. Enter Mandy.

Mandy is an 18-year old liar. She’s not the Pretty Little Liars type of liar, though. She’s just had such a bad track record with her life that she feels the need to defend herself against everyone. She trusts nobody. Reading the book (written from alternating points of view with Jill and Mandy), I just wanted to say “Oh, Honey” every time Mandy said anything. It’s not cheesy. It’s not fake. She’s just naïve, but incredibly well-written. She’s also very pregnant, and is giving up her baby to Robin. She has moved in with Robin and Jill until the birth.

Jill does not like Mandy. There are many reasons for this (not the least of which being that she feels Robin is trying to replace Mac with Mandy’s baby). Jill does not trust Mandy. Mandy does not trust Jill. Robin trusts them both, but perhaps she shouldn’t. Read, and follow the story of them learning to love and trust again (or for the first time), with a looming deadline of the birth of this child.

I really like this book. I think the characters are very real, and they are what drives the plot along. There are honest emotions: sadness, sorrow, anger, frustration, and yes, even a bit of happiness, joy, and the good kind of heartache. I thought the plot was a tad predictable, but as others have said, I would have been mad had anything else happened (though I have at least one student who vehemently disagrees with me on this). Sara Zarr has written a fantastic YA book here that made me laugh and cry.

I recommend this for all readers probably 7th grade and up. There are some difficult topics, but they’re approached very delicately. I think girls might like this more than boys, but I think it’s a good fit for anyone who could learn how to use a little tenderness in their approach to others.

Rating: 4 out of 5 fish. 

Paper Towns by John Green

You know what, John Green? I’m glad this is the last book of yours I’ll read for a while. However, that is only because you just had one published and now I’ve read all the rest. In fact, I’ve read them all in the past 363 days, but that’s neither here nor there. Anyway, I guess I should go ahead and review this one.

Paper Towns is a story about Margo Roth Spiegelman — all 6 syllables. Except it’s not. It’s a story about Quentin Jacobsen — just Q. Except it’s not. It’s a story about the vapidity of our lives and the 2-dimensional paperness we all seem to have, and shucking that attitude and finding the 3-dimensional qualities we’re looking for.

Except it’s not.

It’s all these things, and somehow more. It’s about choosing the correct metaphor for our lives and the meaning that has for us. It’s about how stories are both mirrors and windows (I can’t help but quote Shakespeare here: “No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself, But by reflection, by some other things.” — Brutus, from Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2). It’s about so much. Yet with what the world might deem so little: the drama of some seniors in high school. So much importance in the less than a month timespan of this novel.

Speaking of which, I should address the plot! Q is kind of your typical John Green male protagonist: smart, sort of nerdy, and not really sure of himself. Actually, no, that’s Ben in this book. Q is sure of himself: he’s sure that he’s nothing special. Margo Roth Spiegelman is, quite literally, the girl next door. Q is convinced she’s perfect and too good for him, when in reality, she’s not. She’s convinced that she needs to get out of town (Orlando) and find herself.

The Big Event: Margo’s boyfriend, Jason (Jase) cheats on her, so she decides to get even. She wakes Q up in the middle of the night (even though they haven’t really spoken in years) to tear about town, seeking — and finding — revenge. They reconnect. They have a good time. Then, the next day, Margo’s gone.

This isn’t anything new; she’s left before. She’s also left clues before. This time, she leaves clues for Q. So he and his 2 best friends set out to follow the clues, and find — perhaps save — Margo Roth Spiegelman. We’re not sure if Margo’s alive or dead for most of the novel, and neither is Q.

I find it really interesting that we hear so much about Margo Roth Spiegelman, yet she’s not in most of the book. We hear about her through Q. And what we learn about her, we really learn about him. And what we learn about him, perhaps we learn about ourselves.

Paper Towns is not without the standard John Green wit and sarcasm. That’s sort of his trademark. And it’s wonderful.

Rating: 5 out of 5 fish. 

The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis (audiobook narrated by LeVar Burton)

The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 is a wonderfully written story about 9-year old Kenny and his family from Flint, MI. Well, they live in Flint, MI, but his mother is originally from Alabama. And as they endure one of the coldest winters on record, she lets them know it. Told in a refreshing flashback-and-current-day style, we follow the Watsons as they go through their days in 1963 (and earlier). They’re not all that well off, but they have a house and regular food. Ultimately, though, Kenny’s older brother, 13-year old Byron, has made one too many poor decisions. So they’re going to take a trip to see Grandma Sands, who can help set him straight. Also, she lives in Birmingham, Alabama. In the 1960s. And they’re all African American. There’s definitely the sense that this isn’t going to be like Reese Witherspoon going back in Sweet Home Alabama.

This book is written with a style that is at the same time serious and hilarious. Having our narrator only be 9 allows for many dramatic irony moments, sometimes in moments that are dead serious to him and downright uproarious to the reader (in some ways reminiscent to this reader of Huck Finn). There is some good-natured ribbing of Ohio (what Michigander wouldn’t approve of that?), a lips-frozen-to-the-car moment that really doesn’t happen as often as it should (perhaps because of these sorts of warnings), and a lot of other things that a relatively well-behaved 9-year old would say about his relatively poorly-behaved 13-year old brother (not my life: I was 9 and my brother 13 in 1993, not 1963).

Of course, there’s a lot more to the plot than I’ll get into here, but suffice it to say: there’s a lot going on here. There are good reasons it’s a Newbery Honor book and also good reasons why it is an honor book for the Coretta Scott King Award. There is one big reason, though, why this book should have a place in your classroom.

This reason, in my opinion, is its value as a read aloud book. I’m not sure if I would have picked up on this if I read the book, but I happened to listen to the audio book (interestingly enough, driving up I-75 north past Flint while listening to the Watsons drive down I-75 south from Flint [okay, it was interesting to me]). LeVar Burton (!) does a masterful job with the narration. His voices are spot-on, and this just adds to the laughter. It also adds to the emotional parts, and there are plenty of those as well (again, the narrator is 9, and the author is, in case you didn’t know, amazing). This book came alive for me on the road. I know it can do the same in a classroom.

I think this book would appeal to boys and girls alike, especially in read aloud fashion. There are a few minor curses in it, but in a watch-out-this-is-a-curse-word sort of way (lest we have forgotten that the narrator is 9). This book is appropriate for readers (and listeners) around ages 9/10 and up.

And this 27-year old is not ashamed to say that he enjoyed it as much as those 9/10-year olds will. Perhaps even more.

Rating: 5 out of 5 fish. 

What We’re Doing Right

There are some reviews I need to write (Delirium, The Pull of GravityCinder, Heaven is for Real, an updated The Fault in Our Stars to name a few [okay, to name all of them]), but today was one of those truly magical days in my classroom that I need to write about. So here it is.

The magical moment was brief, yet lasting. A moment, yet eternal. And, of course, awesome. It came as a result of Book Talk Tuesday.

Book Talk Tuesday (BTT) is new in my classroom this calendar year. We did a lot of book talks last year during March is Reading Month, and we have been doing a lot of book reviews, but I realized that my students weren’t really sharing with each other what they were reading — they were just sharing with me. That wasn’t good enough.

So then I saw Kelly Butcher (@LemmeLibrary) post about Book Talk Tuesday (which she hosts on her blog), and I knew that would be how I would incorporate it into our classroom. Every Tuesday, we book talk at the start of class. Everyone is required to do one a month at a minimum, though they can do more.

Yesterday was the last of the rotation for January. Which meant that everyone had done at least one. Except that yesterday was a ridiculously short day of classes as we had an assembly and a school project related to Catholic Schools Week. So today, we had BTW (which, of course, stands for By The Way: Book Talk Tuesday is on Wednesday). The few who still needed to do their book talks did so.

Then came my question: “Who would like to give another book talk? There’s no extra credit, but if you want to share about something else you’re reading, go ahead.” I’m a pretty big believer in wait time. I’m pretty good at 6-10 seconds, which is an eternity in an 8th grade classroom.

I only had to wait about half a second.

There were 3 or 4 students eager to share what they were reading. They know they’ll have to give another book talk in the next couple weeks. This wasn’t about the grade [WOO!]; it was about the books. So they shared. We smiled. We laughed. We asked pointed questions about their books.

Then it came. The book talk that brought the house down.

“The book I’m reading is Algebra I. . .”

We were roaring. It was the best book talk I’ve ever heard. Of course, I have video, but I don’t have permission to share [yet]. We were loving it. And it was all about the books. They’ve arrived. They love sharing about their books — enough to make the jokes that need to be made.

We were still able to have my prepared lesson — a ranking of the skills needed to tell a good story which we’ll use to make a rubric on Friday — but the [positive] damage was done. They enjoyed class — the whole thing.

“This was the best [literature] class I’ve ever had” I heard as they exited the room. Mine, too; mine, too.

Okay, reviews are coming again soon. I promise.