Running with the Reservoir Pups by Colin Bateman

Running with the Reservoir PupsReading level: 4.5 (ish)
Series: Eddie and the Gang With No Name book 1
Genre: Adventure, humor
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Eddie has a bad habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Otherwise, he never would have gotten mixed up with the Reservoir Pups, the scrappy gang of boys who rule the streets in his new town. And he definitely wouldn’t have agreed to their initiation mission: to break into the hospital his mom works at. It’s just Eddie’s luck that he stumbles upon some twisted baby-snatchers on the way. And just when it seems like life can’t get any worse, he bumps into the leader of the Andytown Albinos, the most fearsome gang of all. . . .

Running with the Reservoir Pups starts out on an interesting note with a new kid in town learning the ropes and getting into trouble by just being unlucky. The writing is snarky and clever, and it feels like it’s written to middle school boys rather than for them. I think middle school boys could really get into it.

Unfortunately, the further I got into the book, the less I liked it. As we get thicker into the plot, the sillier it becomes. And silly is fine, but I was led to believe from the first several chapters that it was a realistic story. What with kidnapping babies, boys beating up (at least verbally) on doughnut-eating policemen, and daring rescues with explosions, it just snowballed into utter goofiness. But like I said, that might be what some middle schoolers really love.

In addition to the silliness, I just don’t like Eddie. He is mean, simply put. Even though Scuttles (his arch nemesis and mom’s boyfriend) is obviously a good guy after we see how he cares for the babies, Eddie is still a complete and utter jerk to him.

Now, you may be wondering about the “gang” part of the book. The Reservoir Pups gang is clearly a menace but Eddie decides to try to join. We learn towards the end that apparently the only reason the Pups rescue a certain someone is because they would get paid. These kids are truly the worst of juvenile delinquents intent on doing nothing to help anyone but” themselves even when it means walking away from saving an innocent life. At the end, Eddie and his buddy decide to form their own gang and basically destroy The Reservoir Pups in the following books, which brings to mind violence, violence, and more violence.

I really don’t think this book would be contested, but I would argue that it’s fine to have kids reading it because none of the gangs seem very enticing, and I doubt kids would be inspired to join a gang because of it. Friendship, belonging, and camaraderie are the emphasized subjects more than joining a gang to wreak havoc on society. In addition, throughout the book, Eddie tries to get the help of the Pups, but they refuse him or only help with a heavy price, so they are clearly not people to be crossed or befriended.

For the most part, Running with the Reservoir Pups is ELL-friendly other than a few British English words, such as lorrie. I don’t think these words would do more than cause minor confusion because they are few and far between. The reading level is my best guess because Scholastic hasn’t leveled it.

If you’re looking for a pretty solid and not too serious middle level book that picky boy readers might like, this book could be it. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking and well-written story, you can do much better.

 

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The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The Subtle Knife

Reading level: 7.6
Lexile: 890
Series: His Dark Materials book 2
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary

Having slipped through a newly formed astral portal, the intrepid Lyra finds herself in the beautiful, haunted world of Città gazze–a city where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and the wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky. But she is not without allies. For young Will Parry, in search of his father, has also stumbled into this strange new realm via a magic gateway.


Together the enlightened pair forge ahead on a perilous journey between worlds teeming with witches, angels, and sorcery–and uncover a deadly secret: an object of extraordinary and devastating power. But with every step, they move closer to an even greater threat–and the shattering truth of their own destiny…

I struggled to like this book as much as The Golden Compass, although I loved the parts with Lyra and Will. Lyra is an amazing heroine and I adore her, but we only have glimpses of her adventure…which brings me to perhaps my biggest issue: this story is very complex. There are several puzzle pieces with various characters and their adventures, locations, and goals, and I struggled to create a clear picture with these pieces. Because there are so many components of the plot, we get flashes of many, many characters. I kept hoping that Lyra would take center stage, but she never did.

With so many characters and so many pieces of plot came fewer opportunities for me to fall in love with the characters. I adore books where one or more characters become very dear to me, and I felt less of that in this book than I would have liked. But that’s just my personal opinion.

I do not blame Will for stealing the show, just to be clear. I quite like Will’s character although he scares me with his tendency towards violence. Will and Lyra teaming up made me love and appreciate Lyra even more, and while I love Will, I love Lyra much, much more. I truly hope that we get more Lyra in the final book, even if it means less of Will.

I’m unsure of how Lord Asriel plans to do this, but apparently he’s trying to kill God. I guess someone is taking Nietzsche a little too literally. Anyway, I certainly see how some parents could be upset by this concept. But like one reviewer on Goodreads said, these books are not anti-God or even anti-religion. They are anti-organized religion that make people do horrible things, such as cutting people’s daemons away in this fantasy world or speaking out against certain types of people (gay people, for instance) in our world.

Here is an interesting part near the end that made my jaw drop. Seriously, I was in the car driving while listening to the audiobook and my mouth literally fell open. Mrs. Coulter is trying to get information out of Carlo, and she says, “You know I can please you more than this.” And then “her daemon’s little black horny hands were stroking the serpent daemon. Little by little the serpent loosened herself and began to flow along the man’s arm toward the monkey. “Ah,” says Carlo.  Um…wow. Not too subtle, there. In arguing that this book should be kept on school bookshelves, I’d say that very few young readers (middle school and younger, if not up through high school) would get the suggestive imagery, and there is absolutely nothing explicit. I just thought I’d let all the ghosts out of the attic in this review.

I’m about to start the final book of this trilogy, and I am hoping against hope that it’s better than this one and that I can leave this series with good memories more than mediocre ones.

Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady by Ellen Emerson White

voyage on the great titanicReading level: 5.4
Lexile: 1010
Series: Dear America
Genre: Historical fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Orphaned Margaret Ann looks forward to the day when she will have enough money to leave London to be reunited with her brother in America. She is given that opportunity when she becomes the companion to Mrs. Carstairs, a wealthy American returning to the States. Their voyage aboard the Titanic is a thrilling experience for Margaret until disaster strikes.

As I was going up, I adored the Dear America books. I remember consciously denying the fact that someone other than the diarist wrote these books, because I so badly wanted to believe that they were authentic diaries. Unfortunately, now that I’m all grown up, these books tend to bore me. However, Voyage on the Great Titanic had a great message at the end that I truly appreciated.

Our narrator Margaret is not entirely likable. She seems to cause trouble just because she can, but her love for her brother and later, for Robert, is clear, and I saw after some time that as she matures she begins to turn into a kind, caring young woman. Obviously, Margaret survives the sinking of the Titanic, and the author did a wonderful job portraying the trauma. Margaret asks herself over and over how she could live and so many other people could perish and if she should have acted differently and let someone take her place. She marvels at her fate that brought her into all the right situations to sail on the Titanic and survive. The fact that she never gets over this trauma is sad but realistic.

It seems like this Dear America book is one of the most popular simply because kids (and adults) continue to be fascinated by the Titanic. It was interesting (for a little while) to read about what the few days on the Titanic were like and how people responded to the tragedy as it was happening. Most of all, I appreciated how the reader learns of the inequity aboard the ship. The lower classes were prevented from reaching the life boats or even from reaching the top deck. In fact, Margaret notes that if she had been anything but first class, she may not have survived simply because of her class.

One goodreads reviewer noted how inappropriate some of the vocabulary is for Margaret to be using with her little education and lower class upbringing, not to mention inappropriate for the targeted age group. Just take a moment to compare the reading level to the lexile. Vocabulary alone prevents me from recommending this story to ELLs. I have faith that interested readers could power through the difficult words, however.

Voyage on the Great Titanic is my thirty-sixth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

 

Doing Time Online by Jan Siebold

doing time online

Reading level: 4.1
Lexile: 510
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Elementary school

Goodreads summary:

Twelve-year-old Mitchell got involved with the wrong kid this past summer, and the prank they played led to an elderly woman’s injury. His “sentence” is to chat online with a nursing home resident twice a week for the next month. Mitch isn’t thrilled at first, but soon he has a new friend–Wootie Hayes–who helps him face the truth.

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I bought this book. Maybe I thought there was greatness in the pages to redeem the cover. Or maybe I tried to see past the incorrect use of bracketing. Either way, I can’t say that I made a great decision. The book isn’t terrible, and it could definitely be loved by elementary-aged kiddos (see reading level), but I’m not sure if it’s got much of a place in a middle school class.

To begin with, the book is outdated. Published in 2002, online chatting was just becoming a “thing,” and it was obviously the coolest when Siebold wrote this story. Next, the conflict is over so quickly, and Mitchell is such a good kid that he doesn’t really need any convincing to do the right thing.

Doing Time Online is well-written, and Mitchell’s voice comes out well, but I think the story is so much about teaching a lesson (do the right thing) that there’s not much of a chance to get to know and love the characters.

Because it’s written simply and has a simple message, it might be a good book for middle school/lower high school ELLs if they’re familiar with online chatting. Do today’s kids even know what instant messaging is?? :0

Doing Time Online is my thirty-fifth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang

red scarf girlReading level: 6.1
Lexile: 780
Genre: Memoir
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Red Scarf Girl is a memoir chronicling Ji-Li’s life during Mao’s Cultural Revolution while she was twelve to fourteen years old. She lives a carefree, happy life until the Cultural Revolution where her family gains poor political status, her father is detained, her immediate and extended family is humiliated, and she must choose between having a bright future and siding with her counterrevolutionary parents.

While the Cultural Revolution is not new to me, Ji-Li’s memoir is still moving, educational, and distressing. It’s written so simply, perhaps for the purpose of targeting a younger audience, but the matter-of-fact way she tells her story has a great deal of impact. I think it’s important for all people, students included, to know the story of this time period, because these horrors keep repeating themselves.

What is most interesting to me, personally, about this time period is that despite all the atrocities and injustices happening to Ji-Li and her family, she doesn’t lose faith in the revolution or in Mao. In fact, in the epilogue, the now-adult Ji-Li explains that she was thoroughly brainwashed, causing her, and others, to justify what was happening. Above all else, what will stick with me from this story is the idea that humans can be so thoroughly awful to one another and that we must understand our history as much as possible so as to prevent it from happening again(or to continue happening, anyway).

I see many similarities between The Cultural Revolution and the years leading up to (and during) the Holocaust in the ways people were treated due to their background and values. Even if I cannot teach about 20th century China, I would encourage students to read Red Scarf Girl if I teach about the Holocaust.

Like I said, the language and writing is fairly simple, so it’s good for ELLs. There are evidently lots of resources for teaching Red Scarf Girl. As a whole-class read along, it would be an excellent middle-grade book to discuss this time period, family ties, resiliency, hope, fear, propaganda, injustice… I would recommend this memoir to readers who enjoy non-fiction, Chinese students interested in their history, and students who need a bit of a challenge and enjoy learning about history and the world. Vocabulary words specific to this time period are listed in the glossary in the back of the book.

Red Scarf Girl is my thirty-fourth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Jack Black and the Ship of Thieves by Carol Hughes

Jack Black and the Ship of ThievesReading level: 4.5
Lexile: 680
Genre: Adventure, steampunk
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Jack Black is thrilled when his father, the captain of the largest airship in the world, invites him on the ship’s maiden voyage. Once aloft, Jack overhears a plot to sabotage the ship. But before he can tell his father, Jack falls, plummeting through the air to be caught in the sails of a pirate ship. Now Jack must try to convince a crew of thieves to rescue his father. . . .In this robust blend of fantasy and whirlwind adventure, Carol Hughes confronts the difficult, real-life issues of trust, loyalty, and deception.

So this is steampunk. Huh. I wasn’t expecting steampunk from the cover, which, honestly, is kind of dorky. There is an updated cover that is much more aesthetically appealing, especially for kiddos today. Overall, Jack Black is an engaging, fast-paced adventure story, great for middle school boys.

While I did enjoy the book and gave it 3 stars out of 5 on goodreads, there were many aspects that I didn’t like. The plot is formulaic, for one. I saw just about all events coming from a mile away, which is really saying something because I’m bad at that sort of thing. Second, I didn’t like Jack. Man, he really screws up everything, poor guy, and I wanted to shout at him to stop doing all sorts of things that were pretty clearly headed for disaster…but that also means I was invested and engaged, so I can’t complain too much. Lastly, there is a great deal of ship-specific vocabulary. Since I am not an expert in seafaring, I was frustrated and confused for being unable to visualize what was happening because. Readers can certainly get the gist of what’s happening (it’s a low reading level, after all), but the heavy vocabulary alone prevents me from recommending it to ELLs.

From this book, readers learn to be resilient and never give up, like Jack didn’t give up in his search for his father, and Captain Quixote didn’t give up in destroying Nemesis. An underlying theme is that making stupid decisions can pay off. For example, when Jack makes Giant Mistake #1, it apparently works out for the best. Serendipitous? Yes. Sending the wrong message? Perhaps.

Jack Black and the Ship of Thieves is my thirty-third book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It by Lisa Shanahan

the sweet terrible gloriousReading level: 6.5 (ish)
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Gemma Stone is convinced that it’s always unseemly to chuck a birkett and that it’s actually insane to chuck one in front of a complete stranger. But that was before she fell in love with a boy who barely knows she exists, before she auditioned for the school play, before she met the family of freaks her sister Debbie is marrying into, before the unpredictable Raven De Head took an interest in her, and before she realised that at the right time and for the right reason, a birkett could be a beautiful thing.

I’m not the biggest fan of chick lit, so I was wary initially. As it turns out, while it can certainly be classified as chick lit, it is legitimately funny and heart-wrenching and deep. My biggest issue is with that cover: it has nothing to do with the story…

It took me a good while to get into the story and to love Gemma, our narrator. Gemma is an observer. She discusses what she sees, often as if she is separate from it. Unlike Dimple in Born Confused who is incredibly introspective, Gemma seems to let most things pass before her eyes. This type of narration was annoying to me because she felt so flat, but then I realized that Gemma is a lot like me, because she tries to separate herself from crazy and stressful events happening around her. Near the end, we get a much better sense of who she is.

Speaking of the ending – I turned the page and the story was over! Oh, another part of stereotypical chick lit that I dislike is the romance, but this story stopped before things could get too soppy, which I both appreciated and was frustrated about because I wanted to know what happened!

This story teaches a few, excellent life lessons, such as not judging people based on their background, family, or past actions (i.e. Raven and the De Head family). It’s also about taking risks and going out of your comfort zone.

The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It is a high school book for several reasons: Gemma and her friends are in high school, there are curse words peppered throughout (though not at all excessively), and there are brief mentions of various body parts, but nothing is described in detail. That said, mature middle schoolers might enjoy it, too. The author Lisa Shanahan is Australian, and the story takes place in Australia, so the vocabulary is quite a bit different to the point where it really slowed down my reading at times. For that reason, it’s not ELL friendly, but I think it’d be okay for strong readers who are good at using context clues and/or know to skip over non-essential vocabulary they don’t know.

This book isn’t leveled with Scholastic, so my best guess is that it’s at about 6.5 (6th grade, half way through the year), if not a little higher.

The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It is my thirty-second book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

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