The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox

The slave dancerReading level: 6.4
Lexile: 970
Genre: Historical fiction,
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Jessie Bollier often played his fife to earn a few pennies down by the New Orleans docks. One afternoon a sailor asked him to pipe a tune, and that evening Jessie was kidnapped and dumped aboard “The Moonlight,” a slave ship, where a hateful duty awaited him. He was to play music so the slaves could “dance” to keep their muscles strong, their bodies profitable. Jessie was sickened by the thought of taking part in the business of trading rum and tobacco for blacks and then selling the ones who survived the frightful sea voyage from Africa. But to the men of the ship a “slave dancer” was necessary to ensure their share of the profit. They did not heed the horrors that every day grew more vivid, more inescapable to Jessie. Yet, even after four months of fear, calculated torture, and hazardous sailing with a degraded crew, Jessie was to face a final horror that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

Ug, not a good time. I found The Slave Dancer to be quite boring. I stuck it out ’til the end in hopes that I would get into it, but that never happened. 90% of the setting is on the ship where very little happens that I cared about. I just couldn’t get into Jesse’s character or the other men on the ship.

Since I thought it was dull, students may think the same. I would recommend the book to students who like pirates and historical fiction. The book got generally good reviews, though, so maybe there’s something to this book that I missed.

The lexile is fairly high, and the vocabulary is pretty sophisticated, so it’s not particularly ELL-friendly. It’s better suited to middle schoolers, but I could see high schoolers being appropriately challenged with it, too.

The n-word is used a few times, but it’s not excessive. While it’s unpleasant to hear or read that word, the men who use it are juxtaposed by Jesse who knows that slavery is horrible and morally wrong. There are some instances of the sailors drinking alcohol, but those are the only two parts that might be inappropriate.

The Slave Dancer is my eighth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

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Secrets by Christine Harris

SecretsReading level: 4.2
Lexile: 550
Series: Undercover Girl book 1
Genre: Spy, mystery, thriller
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Jesse Sharpe is no ordinary kid. She’s an orphan, a genius, and a secret agent. Jesse has been assigned by C2–the mysterious organization that raised her and taught her to be a spy–to protect another girl from a kidnap attempt. Jesse will have to trail suspects, plant listening devices, crack codes, and kick occasional bad guy butt. What Jesse doesn’t know is whether she can trust C2 and the information she has been given–or if someone within the organization is trying to blow her cover.

Not gonna lie, this book looked pretty girly, cliche, and generally unappealing. Turns out, it’s pretty awesome!

Okay, so it was girly as in the main character Jesse is a girl, but she’s brilliant (a genius, technically), tough, brave, and funny. And it’s a little cliche in the plot line. But at the same time, the underlying plot is quite complex, and there are many secrets (eh, see the reason for the terrible title?) left unanswered.

There is nothing inappropriate, and it’s good for ELLs. Because of the low reading level and age of our heroine (she’s 11ish?), Secrets is better suited for middle school readers, but it could be a good book for high school ELLs.

Secrets is my seventh book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Poe Park by Agnes Martinez

Poe ParkReading level: 4.1
Lexile: 550
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Depends…
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Enoch Morales is graduating from elementary school and moving into fiesta mood. Adios land of little kids. Hel-lo summer! But as Enoch says, “Just when you think you have it made. It’s like, ‘Got ya.'” The summer has barely started when a terrible event upsets his world, and he must try to overcome difficult conditions.

My ARC copy of Poe Park says “A First Novel” on the cover, which I assume means it’s an introductory novel for young kiddos. It’s a short book at 150 pages and at a 4th grade reading level. As “easy” as the book is to read, it’s got some heavy content.

Poe Park is narrated by an eleven-year-old boy whose family is from Puerto Rico who faces a tragedy and then some. It just keeps getting worse and worse for him. It ends on a bright(ish) note, but it’s a bit of a downer, however realistic it is. Martinez may have written this book to reflect her own experiences growing up in the Bronx with gang violence and poverty.

Poe Park is incredibly realistic and thought-provoking. Despite Enoch being raised by a caring and supportive mother and living a pretty sheltered life, we watch as Enoch’s life crumbles as he turns to violence. As an educator, friend, and human, Poe Park made me remember how helpless I am while also pointing out that one person can make a difference.

There’s quite a bit of Spanish throughout the book. I’d almost say that unless you’re a strong reader and/or know Spanish, this book will be tricky. There are colloquialisms along with the Spanish, so, for ELLs, I’d recommend it most for Spanish-speakers who are intermediate to advanced/transitional. It might even be good for high schoolers learning to speak English, because although the narrator/main character is eleven, his brother is much older and is a big part of the second half of the book.

Poe Park is my sixth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Books with LGBT Themes

Lee Wind has a great blog about books with LGBT themes called I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell do I Read?

The 50+ best free web tools for education

Here is a link to the 50+ best free web tools for education.

YA Books About LGBT Characters of Color

Here is a link to a blogpost about YA books with LGBT characters of color.

The Well by A.J. Whitten

the wellReading level: 4.8
Genre: Horror
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

If Hamlet thought he had issues, he should have talked to Cooper Warner.

His mother’s normally sunny demeanor has turned into something—homicidal.

And what’s worse, she has help in her hunt for Cooper: A ravenous monster living at the bottom of the old well in the woods behind their house. She’s determined to deliver her 14-year-old son straight into the creature’s eager clutches. Cooper turns to his girlfriend, Megan, for help, but then, to his horror, the creature takes her prisoner.
Now, it’s up to Cooper to fend off his murderous mother, finish his Hamlet paper, and enter the putrid lair at the bottom of the well to rescue Megan. And when he confronts the creature, Cooper must make the toughest decision of his life: kill, or be killed.

I’m not a fan of horror, but I thought The Well showed promise. The back cover is all about Shakespeare, suspense, a homicidal mother, love, and some snark.

I got to about page 76 and had to stop. The tipping point (aside from the writing that was dragging on and on and on) was when Cooper sees the Myspace icon (little red flag going up already) of the well, and slime starts oozing over the computer screen. It was then that I realized I’m just not a horror person, so I gave up.

That said, I think The Well could be engaging for young readers (it’s definitely a middle level book) who enjoy suspense. It does have some curse words, but it’s not excessive. However, at the beginning, Cooper jokingly says something about orgies, at which point I wondered about the author, who wrote the book for her daughter. What? If it’s a book for CHILDREN (the cover says ages 12 and up), whether or not your child is involved, why even write something about orgies? But that was the only real point of contention I saw in the whole 70-something pages I read. It’s also kind of gory, but sex is scarier to parents (and kids…) than violence, so…

It is ELL friendly in that it’s got a low reading level without being a baby book, and the vocab is simple. The bad news is that many of the sentences are in fragments to reflect Cooper’s train of thought.

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