Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

E940_SCH_BornConfused_0.tifReading level: 7.2
Lexile: 890
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Dimple Lala doesn’t know what to think. Her parents are from India, and she’s spent her whole life resisting their traditions. Then suddenly she gets to high school and everything Indian is trendy. To make matters worse, her parents arrange for her to meet a “suitable boy.” Of course it doesn’t go well — until Dimple goes to a club and finds him spinning a magical web . Suddenly the suitable boy is suitable because of his sheer unsuitability. Complications ensue. This is a funny, thoughtful story about finding your heart, finding your culture, and finding your place in America.

Minor spoilers below!

The synopsis of Born Confused is terribly generic: teenage Indian girl living in the US resists family traditions of her parents, struggles to figure out who she is and where she fits in Indian/American culture, fights with her best friend over a boy, and ultimately discovers her identity. Nothing new, right? Maybe not, but what led me to rate this book 5 out of 5 stars (which doesn’t happen very often) was the beautiful writing and the realistic (though not always likeable) characters.

I loved the main character and narrator Dimple mostly because she is so introspective. She works to tease out her feelings so she can analyze them as she wrestles with her identity. Especially in contrast to her best friend Gwen, Dimple is humble and kind. Dimple is a girl I could be friends with, and those, to me, are the best characters.

Now, Gwen is also interesting. We don’t learn until well into the story that she has many secrets, but I didn’t feel like her background excused her from being rude and manipulative at times. Plus, Gwen is overly confident (at least so it appears) and extroverted, the opposite of Dimple (and me), which made her hard to like, but it also made it easy for me to be legitimately mad at her, causing me to be even more on Dimple’s side.

Dimple’s parents are great in that they are annoying and embarrassing but so, so loving. Dimple feels suffocated by them while appreciating all that they do for her, and she has the unique ability to understand their motives while disagreeing but not full-out revolting. Dimple and Gwen talk about Dimple’s parents being “perfect” and how she can’t complain about anything bad in her life because she has two loving parents. Dimple replies that just because her family is intact doesn’t mean she must feel guilty. Rather, she should be appreciative, which she is.

Dimple’s cousin Kavita, we learn late in the story, is a lesbian who comes out of the closet to Dimple. Dimple reacts by embracing this new information while also wrestling with the idea that her “girly” cousin doesn’t fit the stereotypical description of lesbian. Dimple flat out asks her questions to Kavita, who answers thoughtfully and honestly. A beautiful moment.

We also meet Zara, a transvestite who Dimple befriends. And you can’t help but adore Zara with her confidence and strength to be who she is. Coming to know Zara is instrumental in helping Dimple embrace her identity.

While some parents might be upset that Born Confused has lesbians and transvestites, I’m not worried about those parts for the story. However, the characters do smoke pot and discuss sex occasionally, although there’s nothing graphic. For those two reasons, I’m rating it pg-13. And really, this story is written for approximately 9th grade and above (and maybe for more mature middle schoolers) due to the age of characters, what they’re experiencing, and the reading level. The story is beautifully written, but the language is complicated with Indian words, metaphors, pop culture references…you name it. Therefore it’s not ELL friendly.

Lastly, don’t be put off by the length of the book (it’s 512 pages). I listened to the audiobook, and the story breezed right by for me.

Born Confused is my fifteenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Hit the Road, Helen! by Kate McMullan

Hit the Road, Helen!Reading level: 4.3
Lexile: 540
Series: Myth-O-Mania book 9
Genre: Myth, humor
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

When Paris and Helen decide to hit the road together, it means more trouble than they can imagine for both themselves and the people of Troy. But who says Helen is entirely at fault? Sure she had a face that launched a thousand ships . . . but she also had a little interference from the meddling god of love and his mother, Aphrodite. Think you know the truth behind the Greek myths? Think again. Hades is here to set you straight once more on the true story of the Trojan War.

So yes, here is yet another Greek myth book. With a reading level of 4th grade, it is a good (not to mention fun) alternative to the more challenging Percy Jackson series. This book is actually more of a parody of the Greek myths. Although we get the “real deal” with who’s fighting whom in the Trojan War, and who all those gods and goddesses are and how they are related, we get another, far more light-hearted version with this story.

While the reading level is low and it’s generally fine for ELLs, there are lots of gods, goddesses, and mortals. Even though we get a list at the beginning of the book of who’s who on both the Greek and Trojan side, it doesn’t list all the characters. I was feeling a little lost at times, but McMullan does a great job of reminding the reader who these people are. The spellings and pronunciations of these characters would also be hard for struggling readers, although there is a pronunciation guide and glossary in the back of the book.

The one and only aspect of Hit the Road, Helen! that I dislike is the lack of female agency, mainly Helen’s. I’m no expert on the actual myth, but I am assuming that the original Helen was pretty useless, which is how McMullan wrote her in this story, too. As the myth goes, the Trojan War begins because Paris steals Helen away from Menelaus. The war continues for ten years because Helen is so in love with Paris that she doesn’t care about the thousands of people who are dying to win her back for her first husband. Helen is nothing more than a pawn. Now, life in ancient Greece was probably kind of lousy for women (although I hear they was more gender equality than we would think), but I hoped that McMullan would have written Helen to be at least kind of cool.

While Myth-O-Mania is a series, the books don’t seem to build on each other. I have only read this book out of the whole series and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything.

Hit the Road, Helen! is my fourteenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Quotes for the Classroom

Here is an ever-growing list of quotes I want to display in my classroom:

“The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” – Sirius Black

“It is our choices that show what we truly are far more than our abilities.” -Albus Dumbledore

“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” -Albus Dumbledore

“Hard work beats talent when hard work works harder.”

“The mind is everything. What you think you become.”  –Buddha

“Eighty percent of success is showing up.” –Woody Allen

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” –Maya Angelou

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Live the life you have imagined.” –Henry David Thoreau

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” –Anne Frank

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.

“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing when you look at the sky at night.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“I am a woman, and I am a Latina. Those are the things that make my writing distinctive. Those are the things that give my writing power.” -Sandra Cisneros

Hannah’s Garden by Midori Snyder

hannah's gardenReading level: 6.5(ish)
Genre: Magical realism, fantasy
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Seventeen-year-old Cassie Brittman is looking forward to her violin recital and the prom– until the hospital calls and she learns that her grandfather, noted mystical painter Daniel Brittman, is dying.

Cassie, her mother, Anne, and Anne’s new boyfriend travel to the family farm and immediately see that things are far from normal. The farm, including Great-Grandmother Hannah’s spiral garden, is almost destroyed, and someone (or something) seems to be stalking them. Cassie soon finds herself at the center of an age-old battle between two supernatural clans-the sinister, dark Red Clan and her own family, the Green Clan. For it turns out that Cassie’s grandfather is half nature spirit, half human…

Hannah’s Garden is an interesting blend of the every-day struggles of Cassie and her mother alongside the magic of the family farm. It’s one of the most beautifully-written stories I’ve read in a while, but some of the content left me underwhelmed.

Cassie faces a difficult decision that many of us have probably dealt with (or will in the future) in that she drops everything to help her mom care for her grandfather. She gives up the prom and her recital for a sick man who doesn’t recognize her anymore. Heartbreaking, right?

Things get interesting when we learn that Anne, Cassie’s mom, is more like a child herself, leaving Cassie as the mother figure at times, much like the family in Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle (which is a fantastic memoir that I highly recommend). The relationship between mother and daughter and also between them and the new boyfriend is frustrating, sweet, heart-wrenching, and so real. The boyfriend may have been my favorite character, actually, despite the reader not knowing much about him. He never gets upset, he doesn’t run away, and we don’t know why he sticks by Cassie and Anne other than because he’s a legitimately good person.

Then there’s the magical folk – the dancing figures in the background of the cover. We see glimpses of them straight from the beginning. But they’re no more than glimpses. Near the end, we finally get immersed in this magical world that apparently lives alongside humanity..? And here’s where I ran into problems. Because the magical part of this story came at the end, I was left with too many questions, and the world was not only unrealistic but not developed to my taste. It felt rushed. Personally, I would have liked the story more if it had forsaken the magic and focused on the familial aspect.

Again, part of the beauty of this story comes from the flowing prose. It’s not particularly ELL-friendly because the vocabulary is complex, especially when describing Cassie’s music (I’m a musician and I didn’t recognize all the words) and plants.

6.5 is my best guess of a reading level; none was listed on Scholastic’s website. Although it’s at a middle school reading level, it’s best suited for 8th grade and above because of some content. Let’s just say there are some moments featuring breasts, but those instances are brief. There are some curse words, too, but nothing in this book is enough keep it off the classroom shelves.

Hannah’s Garden is my thirteenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Life is Funny by E.R. Frank

Life is FunnyReading level: 6.1
Lexile: 830
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

From the outside, they’re simply a group of urban teenagers. But from the inside, they’re some of the most complex people you’ll ever meet. There’s Eric, fiercely protective of his brother Mickey-but he has a secret that holds together his past and future. Sonia, struggling to live the life of a good Muslim girl in a foreign America. Gingerbread and Keisha, who fall in love despite themselves. Life Is Funny strips away the defenses of one group of teenagers living today, right now-and shows their unbearably real lives.

Life is Funny gives a glimpse into the lives of 11 urban teens living in New York. Each of them face serious, realistic obstacles, making it a heart-wrenching and engaging book because real teens face these problems every day. It was a bit of a depressing read, but each story contains hope.

There is a lot to love about Life is Funny. All the characters have likeable, even loveable, qualities, and you can’t help but root for them. While the organization of the book was a bit confusing (time passing, new characters introduced all the time), the characters weave in and out of each other’s lives. And just when you’re getting attached to a character and have high hopes for their future, their chapter ends. The characters in this story are a reminder that people are facing all sorts of struggles and that the least we can do is not judge one another.

Here’s the problem for me as an educator, though. Think of all the topics in teen literature that people freak out about. ALL of those topics show up in these stories. It’s definitely a book for high schoolers (Scholastic says the interest level is 9th grade), and, because I’m paranoid, I wouldn’t put it in a high school library, either. I even contemplated donating the book because I won’t use it in class or read it again, but then I read some more reviews and remembered it’s won some awards. This book can reach kiddos who face hardships like the characters in the book do. When I was in high school, my band director held onto a clarinet for years, just waiting for the right student to come along to whom he could give it. I’ll hang onto Life is Funny in case I find the right reader.

Some of the characters’ voices use colloquialisms, slang, and Ebonics, making it a tricky read for ELLs. While these varied narrations help define our 11 characters, Monique and Eric in particular have distinct dialects that are tricky for me to read fluently and quickly.

Life is Funny is my twelfth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

The Misfits by James Howe

the misfitsReading level: 6.1
Lexile: 960
Series: The Misfits book 1
Genre: Realistic fiction, LGBT
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Skeezie, Addie, Joe, and Bobby — they’ve been friends forever. They laugh together, have lunch together, and get together once a week at the Candy Kitchen to eat ice cream and talk about important issues. Life isn’t always fair, but at least they have each other — and all they really want to do is survive the seventh grade.

That turns out to be more of a challenge than any of them had anticipated. Starting with Addie’s refusal to say the Pledge of Allegiance and her insistence on creating a new political party to run for student council, the Gang of Five is in for the ride of their lives. Along the way they will learn about politics and popularity, love and loss, and what it means to be a misfit. After years of getting by, they are given the chance to stand up and be seen — not as the one-word jokes their classmates have tried to reduce them to, but as the full, complicated human beings they are just beginning to discover they truly are.

The Misfits is a lot of fun. I particularly liked the voices of Addie and Joe, but all the main characters were pretty hilarious throughout the entire story. Not only was it funny, but it included lots of important and serious topics written at the middle-school level.

First of all, we learn how people deal with the death of loved ones, how people heal, and how the pain  never really goes away. Anyone who has experienced loss can relate.

Another topic is equality and fairness, as shown by Addie’s struggle to form a third party in the school elections and her opposition to saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

Joe brings to light issues that gay teens and young adults face, from name calling to complicated crushes and beyond.

Addie shows us unintentional racism by her wanting DuShawn (an African American) to be president of the party because he’s a visible minority, although she won’t admit that his skin color is her main reason for targeting him. DuShawn calls out her stereotyping (that all Black people experience racism, bullying, etc.), and Addie struggles to believe what DuShawn says, perhaps because she has a fixed idea of how society functions and who struggles the most.

And, of course, name-calling is a big part of The Misfits. The middle school I interned at had a no name-calling week where students pledged to not call people names, not just for one week, but for always. It’s important for students to take a moment to think about how the things they say can have an impact on one another.

In essence, this book deals with how people treat and judge one another. I don’t think The Misfits is a terrific piece of literature, but I think it’s important for students to read and discuss, making it a contender for a class read-along in middle school.

Apparently there is a whole series?! The Misfits ends in a way that could be the end without continuing into a series, so there aren’t any cliffhangers or anything. It was intriguing enough that I want to read the others, though.

The lexile is apparently pretty high (I listened to the audiobook, which is harder for me to gauge), but it seems basically ELL-friendly if they’re reading at about the 6th grade level. It’s geared more towards middle school since the characters are in middle school themselves, but I think the concepts are deep enough to be enjoyed and discussed with high schoolers too.

The Misfits is my eleventh book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence

Lord of the Nutcracker MenReading level: 5.5
Lexile: 640
Genre: Historical fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Ten-year-old Johnny eagerly plays at war with the army of nutcracker soldiers his toymaker father whittles for him. He demolishes imaginary foes. But in 1914 Germany looms as the real enemy of Europe, and all too soon Johnny’s father is swept up in the war to end all wars. He proudly enlists with his British countrymen to fight at the front in France. The war, though, is nothing like what any soldier or person at home expected.

The letters that arrive from Johnny’s dad reveal the ugly realities of combat — and the soldiers he carves and encloses begin to bear its scars. Still, Johnny adds these soldiers to his armies of Huns, Tommies, and Frenchmen, engaging them in furious fights. But when these games seem to foretell his dad’s real battles, Johnny thinks he possesses godlike powers over his wooden men. He fears he controls his father’s fate, the lives of all the soldiers in no-man’s land, and the outcome of the war itself.

The cover of Lord of the Nutcracker Men gives you a pretty good idea about what the story will be about: a little boy, death, nutcracker men, war, Britain, and letters. There is a lot going on in this book, and it’s one of those that I’ve come to appreciate after I’ve finished it, even though it wasn’t entirely gripping as I was actually reading it. So yes, I was pretty bored sometimes, but that’s partially me not liking war stories.

Lawrence does an excellent job of communicating the horrors of war, specifically WWI. Through Johnny’s dad’s letters, we watch the dad transformation as he fights in the trenches. We also see Johnny growing up. When he first read about the horrors of war in his dad’s letters, he’d be excited and go play “war” with his wooden soldiers. As time passed, he began to understand that real people were suffering and dying. He also grew up as he took his education to heart and began to hate his aunt less and less.

The element of mystery is what kept me going: was Murdoch a ghost or not? Were the games Johnny played impacting of the actual war? There was just enough magical realism for both of these scenarios to be true.

The reading level is low, but there is a lot of sophisticated and out-dated vocabulary, making it not best suited for ELLs. I would recommend the book to kiddos who enjoy war books and/or historical fiction. It really is a powerful book, but it takes some perseverance because it’s not jam-packed with action. It’s more suited to middle schoolers because the main character is pretty young and the reading level is low, but it could easily be enjoyed by high schoolers, too.

Lord of the Nutcracker Men is my tenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Sky Jumpers by Peggy Eddleman

Sky JumpersReading level: 5th ish?
Series: Sky Jumpers book 1
Genre: Dystopian, science fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

12-year-old Hope lives in White Rock, a town struggling to recover from the green bombs of World War III. The bombs destroyed almost everything that came before, so the skill that matters most in White Rock—sometimes it feels like the only thing that matters—is the ability to invent so that the world can regain some of what it’s lost.

But Hope is terrible at inventing and would much rather sneak off to cliff dive into the Bomb’s Breath—the deadly band of air that covers the crater the town lives in—than fail at yet another invention.

When bandits discover that White Rock has invented priceless antibiotics, they invade. The town must choose whether to hand over the medicine and die from disease in the coming months or to die fighting the bandits now. Hope and her friends, Aaren and Brock, might be the only ones who can escape through the Bomb’s Breath and make the dangerous trek over the snow-covered mountain to get help.

Sky Jumpers is a pretty great middle level, dystopian story. The premise and setting is interesting right off the bat: post-WWIII, deadly Bomb’s Breath, few modern inventions, a secluded community… I enjoyed learning about the history and issues facing White Rock, although I would have liked to have seen more mystery aside from Brock’s “mysterious” background…which we learn about in no time at all.

Hope, our narrator, is simply amazing – brave, smart, and a great friend. I really enjoyed her voice. I liked the end, especially, where she (being 12) realizes that her strengths may not lie with inventing but in something else – something her society tends to overlook. This theme spoke loud and clear to me as I struggle to find the “right” path and career moves now that I’m done with school and student teaching. More than anything in this story, Hope’s message will stick with me, and it would do well for students to think about it as well.

Sky Jumpers is the first in a series that is currently in the works. The first book ends with enough finality that I didn’t feel I needed to rush off and read the sequel, but there are enough unknowns to keep me interested in the rest of Hope’s story.

Unfortunately I was a bit bored with parts of the book, leading me to rate it 3/5 stars on goodreads. I felt pretty “meh” about a good chunk of the action and wanted more to happen and more mystery to keep me wondering. That aside, the book has gotten excellent reviews from many readers, so snatch this book up if you have a chance.

It’s definitely a middle level book with the main character being 12 and the simplicity of the plot. It’s ELL-friendly if students know some key words such as “bomb,” “bandit,” and “invention.” The reading level is my best guess because the book is not on record with Scholastic, and I don’t have the hard copy of the book in front of me to run through Word to get the approximate reading level.

Sky Jumpers is my ninth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.