Fever 1793 – Laurie Halse Anderson

FeverReading level: 7.6
Genre: Historical fiction
ELL-Friendly: Mostly
Library recommendation: Middle school

I have fond memories of reading Fever 1793 as a middle schooler, thinking I was so smart and sophisticated reading something historical, especially since my grandfather was a doctor. While I didn’t get the same thrill reading the book as a 20-something-year-old, I was able to appreciate it all the same.

I loved the historical aspects. There is a great deal of fact from the characters to the actual epidemic. Further facts are explained in the back of the book, at least in my old copy.

The character of Mattie Cook is pretty impressive. She fights Yellow Fever and wins, cares for her grandfather and an orphaned girl, fights off robbers, helps run a coffee shop, and doesn’t lose her cool while her world is falling apart. In my eyes, she’s right up there with Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior, two of my favorite heroines.

I took particular interest in the Free African Society and the character of Eliza, a free African American woman. I wasn’t sure until half way through the book if Eliza was African American or a white indentured servant because the dialogue didn’t reveal a different dialect as it usually does. Near the end, one African American man mentions that people don’t look very kindly on African people. The notes in the back of the book even explain that despite all the charity the Free African Society did for fever victims, people still spread slander against their work. That was the only hint of racism I saw, even though I’m sure it was a big part of life back then. I did, however, appreciate the love between Eliza and Mattie. I wonder if this would have been an exceptional relationship back in 1793.

There are a handful of words used throughout the book that are pretty specific to that time period, especially in relation to clothing, which may be confusing for students, especially ELLs. The context clues make it clear enough, though. All in all, it’s a good book for ELLs if they can get past a small bit of strange vocabulary. It’s definitely a middle school book and probably just fine for grades below 7th grade, despite the reading level being 7.6.

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

The Hunger GamesReading level: 7
Series: The Hunger Games series book 1
Genre: Dystopian, romance
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

I read The Hunger Games trilogy all in one go a few years ago and was inspired to re-read all the books now that the Catching Fire movie is coming out in a few months. As I re-read The Hunger Games, I realized how much I had missed and simply forgotten by reading so quickly. As with the Divergent series, I read as fast as possible just to know what happened next – the mark of a great series! So re-reading was a treat as I compared the movie to the book and re-examined my thoughts about the character of Katniss, the purpose of the Hunger Games, and the love triangle of Katniss, Peeta, and Gale.

I was rather surprised by Katniss’ fragility and humanness. For some reason, I had made her into an infallible, tough-as-nails girl. This book made me appreciate her character as being so realistic. She’s a typical 16-year-old girl in that her feelings are confusing and she has very real fears. But she really is an incredible female role model: she’s smart, brave, adventurous, loyal, honest, and independent. If possible, I love her even more.

The romance between Katniss and Peeta continues to confuse me. Does Peeta really love Katniss? I know what happens to them in the end, but I was never sure if it was genuine. During my re-read, I paid close attention to small details regarding their feelings for one another, and whereas I doubted Peeta’s genuine love for Katniss, I’m pretty darn sure he does love her or at least always had a crush on her. Maybe his love confession was part of his strategy in the Hunger Games, but I don’t think he revealed his love just to make him (or Katniss) look good and to increase his chance at coming back alive.

This series has been banned in a lot of schools. For one, Haymitch is drunk most of the time, and that’s not a good thing for students to read, right? Well, drinking isn’t glorified, and it clearly gets in his way, not to mention contributes to his humiliation. Furthermore, Katniss and Peeta, our true heroes, are continually frustrated with Haymitch’s drinking. Once we get into Catching Fire and beyond, readers can see that he drinks to escape reality. It’s not just pointless and excessive drinking just because.

But really, the issue parents and administrators are having is that kids are killing each other in these books. The message here is that the government (the adults) are the real monsters, turning kids into killers for entertainment. The entire series, especially after the first book, is about rebellion and stopping the brutal murders of minors.

The killing scenes aren’t even that graphic. The only book that gave me nightmares when I was in middle school was Where the Red Fern Grows where one of the young boys gets hit with an axe and dies. I remember that scene fairly well even now, and, if my memory serves me well, none of the killing scenes in The Hunger Games were as graphic as that. The most gruesome of the scenes as where Katniss was trying to tend to Peeta’s leg. Furthermore, when Katniss kills anyone, she feels bad and continues to focus on the real enemy: the Capitol.

I think it’s important for this series to be in classrooms because kids love it. If it gets kids to read, especially reluctant readers, it has value. And as I said before, Katniss is a great female lead and role model – infinitely better than Bella in the Twilight series. And you know what? Scholastic says that the “interest level” is 6th grade. Not that Scholastic has the final word, but perhaps this company’s opinion can carry some weight.

Censorship Resources & Laurie Halse Anderson

I stumbled upon Laurie Halse Anderson’s website and found some wonderful resources, mostly about censorship. The only banned/censored book she has written that I have read is Speak, and she offers reasons for why it is important that young adults read it. There are also other resources for combating censorship in your school in general.

In addition, she’s got some links about researching and writing advice that will hopefully have content coming soon.

Is she not the coolest lady?!

Insurgent – Veronica Roth

InsurgentReading level: 5.4
Series: Divergent series book 2
Genre: Dystopian, romance
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

I don’t even…where to begin…this book…

SO AMAZING.

In no other book have I wanted the couple to be together so badly as in Insurgent. The romance was perfectly written, I think. As much as I was frustrated when Tris and Tobias had fights and I was afraid that they would split up, I appreciate how realistic the situation was. I love how each Tris and Tobias value honesty and how frustrated they get at each other while loving each other the entire time. The pre-execution Tris is a perfect example of Toni Morrison’s quote in Song of Solomon, “He can’t value you more than you value yourself.” I didn’t really understand what Tobias meant when he said he and Tris would be through if she kept throwing her life away until I recalled this quote. Only when she realized her life was worth living did she and Tobias get back on the same page. Beautiful.

The downside to my being so obsessed with Tris and Tobias’ relationship is that I focused more on them than on what they were fighting against sometimes. What can I say, they stole my heart. Or maybe just Tobias…

At the end of Divergent, Tris shoots and kills her friend Will. She spends the entirety of Insurgent being haunted by her decision and action, despite Will having been under a simulation and the fact that he would have certainly killed Tris had she not killed him first. This situation is in direct contrast to that of Ender’s Game when Ender kills a whole slew of people (and buggers) but doesn’t really beat himself up too badly, and everybody excuses him. Tris makes no excuses and always holds herself accountable.

But then one may counter that Tobias is a killing machine. And he sort of is. He reminds me of Gale from The Hunger Games series, where he’s more radical in needing to do what is “necessary” to dispose of the societal evil. In case you haven’t guessed, I love the character of Tobias, minus his willingness to kill. He’s the right amount of perfect and flawed, scared and brave, loving and hard-skinned.

Reasons to keep this off classroom shelves include: too much violence and excessive kissing. I don’t think either was too extreme, but if parents have an issue with The Hunger Games series, they’ll have an issue with this series too, probably – which would be a real shame because it’s SO GOOD.

The Saturdays – Elizabeth Enright

the saturdaysReading level: 5.8
Series: The Melendy Family series book 1
Genre: Classic
ELL-Friendly: Kind of
Library recommendation: Middle school

The Saturdays is certainly outdated (written in the ’40s), but in a heart-warming way. Think Anne of Green Gables or Little Women. I can’t say I liked it very much because there wasn’t much substance, character development, or problems. It was just a bunch of well-off, white kids being bored and getting into minor trouble. The book really was dripping with privilege. I also found it unrealistic that all four siblings got along so well all the time.

As I read The Saturdays, I wondered if students would actually enjoy this book. It’s got no action, has strange words, and is lacking a plot for the most part. There are lots of positive reviews on goodreads about children liking it, so we’ll see.

I say that it’s “kind of” ELL-friendly because you’ll be reading along, everything’s great, then – what is that word? There were a handful of words I’d never seen, and there were also outdated words like “swell” and “keen.” The dialogue between some characters may also be confusing to all students due to how various dialects are written. I think most of the servants and workers of the Melendy family were not white – maybe African American? The only hint of racism I found was at the end when Wilkins calls Mrs. Oliphant “Mrs. O,” and the lady explains that Wilkins only likes to talk in short sentences and abbreviates names.

It’s definitely a book for middle school, and I think that if kids are still reading classics now-a-days, they might enjoy this book too.

The Kill Order – James Dashner

Kill OrderReading level: 5
Series: Maze Runner series book 0.5
Genre: Dystopian
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

The Kill Order is the prequel to the Maze Runner series, of which I have read the first book:  The Maze Runner. I would have liked for The Kill Order to be more about the lives of the boys (and Theresa) that we meet in The Maze Runner, but this book is instead solely about a whole new set of characters who are running around in their adventures 20 years before the kiddos are sent to The Maze as we meet them in book 1. In that way, I didn’t feel like this book added much to the series as far as characters.

It was interesting to hear more about the sun flairs and what the rest of the world is facing while our characters from The Maze Runner are in the Glade. After the initial interest about oh sun flairs, oh tsunamis, oh a virus, I got rather bored. It’s all death and destruction.

I didn’t like a lot of things about this book. It was very action-y, but it lacked characterization. I’m sure this book could be incredibly engaging to many young readers, but I didn’t enjoy it very much. And so much violence. The TITLE probably should have prepared me, but sheesh. Fighting (and killing) scenes everywhere. I got really sick of them after a while. I mean, it’s a survival story, but our characters survive not by being smart or clever but by beating and shooting the daylights out of everybody everywhere.

I wanted to like the main character Mark. I know that he loves Trina, feels bad about killing people, wants to live, and misses his family, but that’s about it. Who is this kid? I wouldn’t really have minded if he had died because I wasn’t attached to him. I wasn’t attached to any of the characters, actually. With Thomas in The Maze Runner, I knew everything Thomas knew about himself. We pieced together his mystery of a life together. Not so here.

I didn’t even hate the “bad guys.” There weren’t any twists and turns or interesting plot points. It was just…meh. What kept my interest was hoping Mark and Alec could find their friends so something interesting would happen, such as saving humanity. That didn’t happen.

But the beginning was interesting! Who are the bad guys? We must find them! Solve the puzzle! Okay, puzzle mostly solved. Time to go kill everyone.

And actually, this turned into a sort of zombie movie. Stay away from the diseased people who will kill you in weird ways. If they get you, you’ll become a zombie get “sick” too. And I’m not a fan of zombie stories.

Okay, let’s stop ranting. The book is ELL-friendly, is action-packed, and appropriately bloody. I don’t think it’s too graphic to make parents mad. It’s also pretty realistic. In a few hundred years, the sun might flair and cause all sorts of destruction on Earth. The people might react by going nuts as resources are destroyed. It could happen.

Homeless – Laurie Halse Anderson

HomelessReading level: 4.1
Series: Wild at Heart/Vet Volunteers book 2
Genre: General fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

I have fond memories of reading these Wild at Heart books in middle school. These, along with James Herriot’s books, inspired me to be a vet-author…which lasted several years until I realized I wanted to teach. While Homeless is part of a series, each book can stand alone. All of these books are about 6th graders who are vet volunteers, and I could see animal-loving middle schoolers devouring this series.

It’s got a pretty straight-forward lesson: listen to the adults (i.e. don’t stick your hand in a cage that has a feral cat), and don’t give up on your dream. Sunita, the main character, and I share the same dream: to have a cat of our own. Some day, Sunita. Some day.

As you may have guessed, Sunita is Indian. It doesn’t play into this book at all, except when her mother cooks and Indian meal for Sunita and her friends. As far as I know, the other kid volunteers and narrators of other books in this series are all white. But they could still be diverse in other ways. To quote Kevin Malone from The Office, “We see. Weeee seeee,” aka I’ll get back to you when I read other books in the series.

This book has some academic language having to deal with medical concepts and veterinarian dealings, but most unfamiliar words are explained. Therefore, I think it’s perfectly ELL-friendly. It’s definitely a middle school book, but a beginner ELL in 9-10th grade may find it useful, especially if they’re interested in the subject.

And yes, ladies and gentlemen, this Laurie Halse Anderson is the very same lady who wrote Speak. I’m impressed with her ability to write such different types of stories.

I really want a cat now. And this is post #100! Wooo!

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