Middle school students have reading interests that run the gamut from Diary of a Wimpy Kid to Twilight. Sometimes as a parent it is hard to know what is age appropriate for your child. Through this blog, I will try to help parents make informed decisions about what is available in our library. I am hoping that this blog will be a resource for our parents, and that we can all work together to make our students life-long readers!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Running Dream

The Running Dream
by Wendelin Van Draanen
From the publisher:
"An award-winning and inspiring novel.  When Jessica's dreams are shattered, she puts herself back together—and learns to dream bigger than ever before. 

Jessica thinks her life is over when she loses a leg in a car accident. She's not comforted by the news that she'll be able to walk with the help of a prosthetic leg. Who cares about walking when you live to run?

As she struggles to cope with crutches and a first cyborg-like prosthetic, Jessica feels oddly both in the spotlight and invisible. People who don't know what to say, act like she's not there. Which she could handle better if she weren't now keenly aware that she'd done the same thing herself to a girl with CP named Rosa. A girl who is going to tutor her through all the math she's missed. A girl who sees right into the heart of her.

With the support of family, friends, a coach, and her track teammates, Jessica may actually be able to run again. But that's not enough for her now. She doesn't just want to cross finish lines herself—she wants to take Rosa with her

Winner of the Schneider Family Book Award"

Another nearly perfect book by Wendelin Van Draanen. I loved this book! My only disappointment lay in the fact that it ended. I wanted to hear more about Jessica's future and how her parents coped. Once you begin reading this book you will be sucked in like Jessica's suction sock and it will never let go. I appreciate the massive research the author obviously did on the loss of a limb - not just the medical treatments, but the emotional and mental aspects of it. I thought the different stages Jessica went through were very realistically portrayed - the loss, the anger, the self-pity, the loss of self-worth, and on and on. And I loved that those stages didn't just end and another begin, but she had to keep battling all of them for a long time. At one point she says, 

It's disturbing how fast weeds take root in my garden of worthiness.
They're so hard to pull.
And grow back so easily. 

I was happy that Jessica had such strong support:
*From her family..... how her parents coped with nearly losing their daughter, then having to help her through the recovery, having to worry about money and medical bills - they were wonderful.
*Her best friend, Fiona...... what an amazing friend! She was ALWAYS there for Jessica. I loved this character!
*Her coach...... he didn't coddle her, he pushed her and helped her to get back to her running.
*Her teammates........ even though she tried to push them away, and succeeded pretty well, they were there for her when she was ready for them to be, and were so happy and excited to help her.
*Jessica would be upset if I didn't mention Rosa. Rosa helped her in so many ways, even though before the accident Jessica had never really "seen" Rosa. 

Another thing I love about this book is that it teaches us important truths. Here's one:

That's all anybody with a disability wants. Don't sum up the person based on what you see, or what you don't understand; get to know THEM." 

Having just seen the movie Wonder (I read the book several years ago) and now reading this, I hope it has made me more cognizant of how to treat people who might be different than I am. 

Please read this book....... by yourself, with a friend, as a family, or in a classroom. You will not regret it.

Areas of concern:
*Loss of a limb
*Death of a teenager
*A very brief period of prescription drug dependency, but it was quickly squashed by her parents
*One brief kiss

Suggested Ages:
Kirkus Reviews - Ages 12+
School Library Journal - Grades 7+
**EVERYONE should read this book!**

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Ethan I Was Before

The Ethan I Was Before
by Ali Standish
From the publisher:
"Ethan had been many things. He was always ready for adventure and always willing to accept a dare, especially from his best friend, Kacey. But that was before. Before the accident that took Kacey from him. Before his family moved from Boston to the small town of Palm Knot, Georgia.

Palm Knot may be tiny, but it’s the home of possibility and second chances. It’s also home to Coralee, a girl with a big personality and even bigger stories. Coralee may be just the friend Ethan needs, except Ethan isn’t the only one with secrets. Coralee’s are catching up with her, and what she’s hiding might be putting both their lives at risk.

I didn't like this one as much as I expected to, and I'm not sure why. The writing was lovely and I cared about poor little Ethan, but there was just some disconnect for me. Maybe it is that I wasn't completely invested in the extreme grief of 2 of the characters. Life goes on, and children in particular are incredibly resilient. For most children I have seen, the loss of someone close sometimes doesn't even compute, and if it does there are days of intense grief which fade into moments of sadness. So at the beginning I felt badly for Ethan, but that faded into "Oh my gosh, quit doing stupid things!". And I don't even want to get started on Grandpa Ike. Be a man and take care of your family! There were also way too many things going on, so it was hard to get emotionally involved in all of those story lines. 
However, it was a good, clean story with lovely writing. 

Areas of concern:
*Loss of a close friend
*Dysfunctional family issues
*Stupid choices by the main character
*Heavy grieving

Suggested Ages:
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 8-12
School Library Journal - Grades 4-6

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Wild Bird

Wild Bird
 Wendelin Van Draanen
From the publisher:
"3:47 a.m. That's when they come for Wren Clemens. She's hustled out of her house and into a waiting car, then a plane, and then taken on a forced march into the desert. This is what happens to kids who've gone so far off the rails, their parents don't know what to do with them any more. This is wilderness therapy camp. 

The Wren who arrives in the Utah desert is angry and bitter, and blaming everyone but herself. But angry can't put up a tent. And bitter won't start a fire. Wren's going to have to admit she needs help if she's going to survive. 

In her most incisive and insightful book yet, beloved author Wendelin Van Draanen's offers a remarkable portrait of a girl who too a wrong turn and got lost--but who may be able to find her way back again in the vast, harsh desert."

This book touched me deeply, and I think it is an important book for teens to read. It realistically explores the importance of choices, big and small, and the consequences that come from them. The author somehow makes us care about a 14 year old girl who is completely out of control and very unlikable. But I started reading Wren's story and couldn't stop until it was over. It is a harsh, heartbreaking story of survival and redemption. Last year I read the book Connect the Stars, and was put off by the portrayal of the wilderness camp as a poorly run and dangerous thing for any parent to send their child to. But the program in Wild Bird is a well-run and life changing event. I have a feeling it is based on the Anasazi program in Utah. There were no punitive methods, it was all natural consequences. Wren refused to listen to how to build her shelter? She had a very wet and miserable night. She refused to read her handbook and try making a fire? She ate dry rice and beans for a couple of days. The camp had many caring adults, constant contact with base camp, counselors, mentors and great skill teaching. 8 weeks in this program would completely change anyone. Having been a counselor at a girl's camp for many years, I have seen the growth, the friendships, and the transformation that can happen in just one week. I can only imagine what could be accomplished in 8 weeks of extreme survival and near-solitude. There is something about testing yourself in nature that teaches you a lot about who you are. Wren slowly went from a hate-filled, angry, immature 14 year old, to a young woman who knew who she wanted to be, and it was very different from what she thought. Whether or not these changes can be maintained in the old environment is the question, but I thought the author dealt with that beautifully as well, and we can only hope it all works out for Wren. 
A couple of quotes that are worth sharing both come from a part towards the end of the wilderness program called "The Quest", where a camper (or inmate, as Wren likes to say) is taken away from the others and has to fend for themselves for 3 days. 
Solitude and nature.... an amazing combination.

And then suddenly, unexpectedly, tickling me from inside, I recognize a long-lost feeling. The one I looked for whenever I got stoned or drunk. The one I tried to corner by outsmarting Anabella, my parents, Meadow. The one that kept drifting past me, promising me I would find it right....over...there.
And here, now, tickling the pit of my stomach, pinging to life in my heart, the feeling has found me? I'm filthy, alone in the desert, making food in the dirt, and somehow, against everything I've said and thought and expected, it's found me?
I laugh out loud. It's so ironic.
But there it is.
Happiness from inside. 

And later, while gazing at the stars she thinks, 

I want to be someone who remembers the stars, even in daylight.
I want to be someone who looks up. 

Please read this book! It is not a fluffy beach read, it is by turns disturbing, heart wrenching, and beautiful. You will think about it for a long time. Thank you, Wendelin Van Draanen!

Areas of concern (all dealt with as poor choices and not glorified in any way):
*Very underage drinking and smoking pot.
*A 14 year old making out with an 18 year old.
*Shoplifting and stealing from parents.
*Damaging beloved property.
*Drug running.

Suggested Ages:
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 12+
School Library Journal - Grades 8+

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade

The Secret Sheriff of
Sixth Grade
by Jordan Sonnenblick
From the publisher:
"In sixth grade, bad things can happen to good kids. Bullies will find your weakness and jump on it. Teachers will say you did something wrong when really you didn't mean to do anything wrong. The kids who joke the loudest can drown out the quieter, nicer kids.

Maverick wants to change all that. One of the last things his father left him was a toy sheriff's badge, back when Maverick was little. Now he likes to carry it around to remind him of his dad -- and also to remind him to make school a better place for everyone . . . even if that's a hard thing to do, especially when his own home life is falling apart.

The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade is a story about standing up for yourself -- and being a hero at home and in the halls of your school."

Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick is one of my all-time favorite middle school books. That being said, I really liked this one, but it didn't have quite the impact that DGADP had for me. There was something I just couldn't put my finger on. While there were parts I loved, there were also parts where I was just kind of, "Hmmmm". Luckily, the parts I loved far outweighed the "Hmmm" parts. 
I loved the main character, Maverick (I kept expecting a reason behind his name but never got one..... hmmmm). I felt the pain of his circumstances and his desire to rise above them. When he first started school, I was getting defensive because so many of the adults seemed mean and clueless, and I hate that in books. However, some of them came around and we found out they were very caring (although several remained completely clueless..... hmmmm). 
This book naturally made me think of my school. We have many students who are in several of the situations portrayed in this book. I like to think that we are being as proactive and concerned as possible, but what is slipping through the cracks? 

As usual in a Jordan Sonnenblick book, I need to let quotes do the selling.

One of the many times our main character winds up in the assistant principal's office (of whom he is terrified), he notices a sign on the wall that says, 
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. 
At that point Maverick realizes that the assistant principal isn't there to terrorize him, but maybe, just possibly, to help him. 

Towards the end of the story when Maverick realizes that he doesn't have any real life heroes in his life to look up to and emulate, he has this thought, 
I wasn't sure what my path would be, but I knew I didn't want to be like any of them. Each, in their own way, spent life being ruled by the exact same things they feared. 
We never find out whether he is actually able to overcome the legacy he is left, but you sure are rooting for him!

Although there is resolution at the end of the story we are left wondering about many things, but I guess that is life. I tend to like my books tied up in neat packages with a bow on top, but sometimes it is good to have to think. Jordan Sonnenblick always gives us a lot of intense topics to deal with, but his signature humor is very much a part of the story. I definitely recommend this one!

Areas of concern:
*Scenes of abuse of a parent and a child
*The sadness of a father killed in a firestorm in Afghanistan
(All of these things are very gently dealt with.)

Suggested Ages:
Kirkus Reviews - Ages 10-13

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

The Autobiography of
Miss Jane Pittman
by Ernest J. Gaines
From the publisher:
""This is a novel in the guise of the tape-recorded recollections of a black woman who has lived 110 years, who has been both a slave and a witness to the black militancy of the 1960's. In this woman Ernest Gaines has created a legendary figure, a woman equipped to stand beside William Faulkner's Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury." Miss Jane Pittman, like Dilsey, has 'endured,' has seen almost everything and foretold the rest. Gaines' novel brings to mind other great works The Odyssey for the way his heroine's travels manage to summarize the American history of her race, and Huckleberry Finn for the clarity of her voice, for her rare capacity to sort through the mess of years and things to find the one true story in it all."  -- Geoffrey Wolff, Newsweek.

"Stunning. I know of no black novel about the South that exudes quite the same refreshing mix of wit and wrath, imagination and indignation, misery and poetry. And I can recall no more memorable female character in Southern fiction since Lena of Faulkner's Light in August than Miss Jane Pittman." -- Josh Greenfeld,  Life ."

It is hard to rate or review a book like this. Did I like it? That is difficult to say. Did it have an impact on my life? Yes. I know it is a work of fiction and not an autobiography at all, but it has the feel of real life, and much of it is real life from a fictional viewpoint. So I'll ask myself the same questions I ask my students when they read autobiographies. 
"Did you learn something from reading it?" Yes, definitely - so many things. One small thing is that I never realized the importance placed in changing from a slave name after the abolition of slavery, but that would have been the first thing I did, too. 
"Did it make you think about your life and how it differs from the person/people you were reading about?" Totally and completely. When you are raised in oppression and have watched many people, including your mother, be killed and never knew your father (possibly a breeder from another plantation?), and witnessed all kinds of vice, your sensitivities are dulled and it is hard to know right from wrong. Several other reviewers have mentioned that they couldn't relate to Jane and that she was emotionless, but I think that is part of the story. Others have complained about the religious aspects towards the end, but that is also very plain to me. 
"What kind of character traits and attributes did you notice in the person/people that made it so they could overcome their difficulties?" She was obstinate, she was tough, she persevered. 

I'm glad I read this, it was a very gripping read. I didn't like the ending at all, but I guess this isn't the type of book to have a neat, wrapped up ending. 

Areas of concern:
*The "n" word proliferates in this book for obvious reasons. 
*This is a part of our 8th graders banned and challenged book unit. Here is what Marshall University said on their website, 
"Challenged as an eighth-grade district-wide reading assignment in the Puyallup (WA) schools because "racial slurs and stereotyping are used through the book, as well as scenes of sex, rape, and implied incest. The Puyallup School Board voted to uphold an earlier decision by a district committee requiring eighth-graders read the novel."

Suggested Ages:
Because this is an older book, the only suggested age I could find was "Upper Grades".

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Mysterious Benedict Society

The Mysterious
Benedict Society
by Trenton Lee Stewart
From the publisher:
""Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" 

Dozens of children respond to this peculiar ad in the newspaper and are then put through a series of mind-bending tests, which readers take along with them. Only four children-two boys and two girls-succeed. Their challenge: to go on a secret mission that only the most intelligent and inventive children could complete. To accomplish it they will have to go undercover at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, where the only rule is that there are no rules. But what they'll find in the hidden underground tunnels of the school is more than your average school supplies. So, if you're gifted, creative, or happen to know Morse Code, they could probably use your help."

I finally got around to reading this one after several students told me how wonderful it is. I'm glad some of my students love it, but I can't see all of my students loving it. I had to force myself to read it clear up until about 65% of the way through. And, oh my goodness, the suspension of disbelief that has to go on to read this! (Minor spoilers ahead.) Men from L.I.V.E. come to kidnap these children and take them to the school, and then a couple of days later the children are driven there and dropped off and no one notices? They even use their real names and no one bats an eyelash. And then they communicate by nighttime Morse Code transmissions from their bedroom window and no one notices? It is supposed to be a super secure place and they just flash lights out their window and then watch the mainland for signals back, which no one notices either. *Sigh* 

This book seems like it is trying to be like A Series of Unfortunate Events, but without the tongue-in-cheek wit and wonderful weirdness of those books. And about 3 times the length of one of them. However, once again I have several students who love this series, so it doesn't matter what I think. For middle schoolers this is a fun, semi-exciting start to a series. For adults, maybe not so much.

Areas of concern:
*Children being stolen and used for nefarious purposes.
*Children being punished severely for minor or no infractions.

Suggested Ages:
Kirkus Reviews - Ages 11-13
School Library Journal - Grades 5-9

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Forgetting

The Forgetting
by Sharon Cameron
From the publisher:
"What isn't written, isn't remembered. Even your crimes.

Nadia lives in the city of Canaan, where life is safe and structured, hemmed in by white stone walls and no memory of what came before. But every twelve years the city descends into the bloody chaos of the Forgetting, a day of no remorse, when each person's memories – of parents, children, love, life, and self – are lost. Unless they have been written.

In Canaan, your book is your truth and your identity, and Nadia knows exactly who hasn't written the truth. Because Nadia is the only person in Canaan who has never forgotten.

But when Nadia begins to use her memories to solve the mysteries of Canaan, she discovers truths about herself and Gray, the handsome glassblower, that will change her world forever. As the anarchy of the Forgetting approaches, Nadia and Gray must stop an unseen enemy that threatens both their city and their own existence – before the people can forget the truth. And before Gray can forget her."

There I was, calmly reading what I thought was a normal, run-of-the-mill, YA dystopian novel, when all of a sudden a twist hit that I was totally unprepared for. What?! So, while I enjoyed the beginning, it wasn't anything that I hadn't read a hundred times. But then, BAM, and all my perceptions were changed. 
This book pretty much has it all. Corrupt government, evil rulers, intense situations, sweet romance (with some pretty steamy kissing), strong heroine and funny, handsome hero, strong supporting characters and a surprising twist in the plot. I read and loved this author's book Rook , but didn't ever finish The Dark Unwinding . I think you just have to have patience at the beginning of her books, because they all seem to start very slowly. But believe me, they pack a punch later on. The premise in this one is so interesting and has so many facets. I was worried when I heard that there was another book in the series because I wanted resolution and ANSWERS in this one. Luckily the next book is just a companion book and not a sequel, so you don't have to worry about a big cliff hanger. 

Areas of concern:
*A scene of torture which is intense but not graphic.
*A pretty gruesome stabbing.
*An attempted suicide.
*Talk of floggings and a war in the past.
*A character witnessed some horrible events in the past and tries to describe some of it.
*Attempted mass murder.
*The afore-mentioned steamy kissing.
(All of that together sounds pretty terrible, but it was nothing worse than many other dystopian/science fiction books out there. They can get pretty violent.)

Suggested Ages:
Publisher's Weekly - Ages 12+
School Library Journal - Grades 8+