Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle

Let it SnowReading level: 5th (ish)
Genre: Romance
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Sparkling white snowdrifts, beautiful presents wrapped in ribbons, and multicolored lights glittering in the night through the falling snow. A Christmas Eve snowstorm transforms one small town into a romantic haven, the kind you see only in movies. Well, kinda. After all, a cold and wet hike from a stranded train through the middle of nowhere would not normally end with a delicious kiss from a charming stranger. And no one would think that a trip to the Waffle House through four feet of snow would lead to love with an old friend. Or that the way back to true love begins with a painfully early morning shift at Starbucks. 

Honestly, I’m not a fan of Christmas stories or romance stories, and I only read Let It Snow because it was the last published John Green story that I hadn’t read. However, I did enjoy the stories (except for maybe the final one), but I won’t go out of my way to get a copy for myself or my classroom library. As a trio, I loved how the stories interwove with each other. That is, the three stories contain some of the same characters that adds some depth and surprises I wasn’t expecting.

Each of the stories contain mild swearing, and one story in particular contains several mild references to sex, which would get a pg-13 sticker from me if I owned a copy. That said, because of some of the “mature” content, the nature of romance stories, and the ages of the characters (high school), Let It Snow would appeal more to the high school age group but wouldn’t be unfit for upper middle school, either. In general, it is ELL-friendly with some exceptions of words here and there that just seemed out of place in otherwise simply-written stories.

“The Jubilee Express” by Maureen Johnson

Jubilee takes a trip by train, but the train is delayed by a snow storm, so she winds up staying with a boy and his family. Jubilee was a likable character but reminded me a little of helpless, pathetic Bella Swan in that she is clumsy and tends to ramble, which makes her look uncontrollably weird. Because it’s a romance story, Jubilee and The Boy (Stewart) get together. Overall, it was a sweet story if just a little weird with the mom encouraging Stewart to hook up with this random girl (Jubilee) and the romance moving very quickly.

“A Cheertastic Miracle” by John Green

Three friends risk their lives to get to The Waffle House in the midst of a snow storm in order to bring Twister to a group of cheerleaders who are displaced on the same broken-down train as Jubilee. This short story is similar to An Abundance of Katherines where the story is hormone-driven and features an obnoxious minority friend of the main character. The boys’ obsession with cheerleaders gets SUPER annoying. There is a beautiful moment (the kind that John Green is famous for) among the incredibly shallow plot line of MUST GET TO CHEERLEADERS. The main character is remarking on the changes that happen between boys and girls that cause friendship to become something more and how that change can be dangerous by ruining innocent and special relationships.

“The Patron Saint of Pigs” by Lauren Myracle

Okay, this is the story that I particularly disliked. We are reconnected with Jeb, whom we meet in the first story. Addie and he had dated before Addie made a big mistake and ruined the relationship, and the entirety of the story is Addie pining for him. Addie is pretty deplorable. She’s annoying and selfish. Yes, she realizes she is too self-centered, but saying a few nice things and doing an errand from a friend hardly changed my perception of her.

As I was reflecting on how I disliked Addie and why, I realized that all of these stories are so white-washed and upper class. Sure, Jeb is Native and Annoying Kid from John Green’s story is Asian, but, man, so much privilege and so many winy, spoiled teenagers. This book has gotten pretty great reviews, so don’t be discouraged because of me. Like I said, I was never a fan of romances or Christmas stories in the first place.

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

wintergirlsReading level: 4.5
Lexile: 730
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: High school

Lia and her friend Cassie are wintergirls: skinny, frail, and ill due to their eating disorders. When Cassie leaves dozens of ignored voicemails on Lia’s phone before Cassie is found dead, Lia is haunted by her best friend’s ghost that encourages her to eat less and lose more weight until bulimia begins to kill her, too. All the while, Lia is burdened by those voicemails that may have saved Cassie’s life if she had picked up the phone.

As you might expect from the brief synopsis, Wintergirls is a haunting story. Laurie Halse Anderson does an excellent job portraying what goes through Lia’s head and how she is convinced by her own thoughts, message boards, and Cassie’s ghost to continue starving herself even through she knows she is hurting her body. It’s easy for so many of us to just say that Lia is a stupid teenage girl caught up in her appearance, but bulimia is a disorder for a reason. It’s all-consuming,  ever-present, and, as we see through the strike-through text, Lia is in constant battle with herself.

Lia as a character is not a girl I particularly like, maybe because I can’t identify with her much, and maybe because so much of her identity, thoughts, and actions are about eating, not eating,and losing weight. It seems to me like Anderson focused more on the issue rather than the character, which I don’t see as a criticism at all, because I don’t think Lia liked herself very much, so it’s difficult for the reader to like her either.

Talking about having this book in the classroom is tricky. It’s got some foul language as well as graphic images and descriptions throughout, which makes the book realistic and powerful but also not necessarily appropriate for all students. I wouldn’t have Wintergirls in my classroom library for any ages younger than 7th grade, for one. If I teach 7th grade and up, I’d put a pg-14 sticker on it. While some parents might be mad that their child read the book, every one of my students will know that graphic books have warning stickers, just like mature video games and movies. They should only read books their parents would let them read. I would also argue that most if not all girls struggle with their body image even if they don’t have an eating disorder or know someone who does. Wintergirls does not encourage girls to starve themselves. Rather, it explains the horrors that encompass people who have bulimia and anorexia. More than anything, this book made me want to not be hard on myself for having my pants fit a bit tighter than they should or for eating a cookie or two. Wintergirls made me want to exercise and eat healthy foods but not worry so much, because the last person I want to turn into is Lia.

Of course, Wintergirls may also be a powerful book for girls (or boys) who struggle with bulimia or other body image issues or know someone who is struggling themselves. The low reading level makes it ELL-friendly, although there are some message board posts written with incorrect grammar and without punctuation, but most kids these days are whizzes at interpreting and writing this type of internet-speak.

 

Animal Farm by George Orwell

animal farmReading level: 9.0
Lexile: 1170
Genre: Fable, satire
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Orwell wrote Animal Farm as commentary on the Russian Revolution, and each of the characters can be compared to an actual person in that time period. Even separate from the historical context, this story is much like 1984 in that Orwell reflects critically on the state of politics and the antics of politicians and ignorant people throughout the world. In Animal Farm, the animals drive out the horrible farmer and lead a democratic, animal-centric life. Slowly, the pigs take charge, one more than others, so that by the end, the pigs are indistinguishable from humans and they’re right back where they started.

I have been burned out on YA lit lately (blasphemy, I know), so I opted to read some adult or at least more “sophisticated” literature in preparation for a YA reading marathon this summer. I had read Animal Farm in middle school because it was short and looked funny, but I didn’t truly understand it until I read it again as an adult.

Wikipedia can tell you all you need to know about how the characters in the book are actually about actual historical figures (Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin), and for a while I thought that Animal Farm would really need to be taught alongside a history unit on the Russian Revolution. However, after some thought and looking at teaching materials, I don’t think this is the case. Even without any of that historical context, Animal Farm is still a striking commentary on how leaders gain and keep power and how the masses are fooled and mistreated throughout history and around the world. This book can help high schoolers learn to think critically about what they are told and “learn” and how to be a conscious voter and thinker.

I did a simple internet search for “teaching Animal Farm” and found lots of information, so I will not think up my own lesson plans or ways to use this book in the classroom. But here is one link from Penguin (the book publisher) that has a fairly detailed, if slightly simplistic, unit plan: Penguin’s Animal Farm Unit Plan.

I’m wondering now, though, about the benefits to teaching Animal Farm over 1984. If one were to teach Animal Farm without the historical context of the Russian Revolution, the important messages seem to be almost identical to those in 1984, though it has been many years since I’ve read it. One advantage is that Animal Farm is very short and might be better for struggling readers and ELLs. Less time reading means more time discussing and researching. Also, because Animal Farm is so short and written fairly simply, it would be easier to stop after each short chapter and talk about the lies and deceptions that happened. Because the character development and plot is not as complex as in 1984, there is, again, more time to dissect and discuss the blatant lies and trickery happening.

It’s certainly a book for high school students, and it’s also one of those pesky classics that ought to be read as a class and discussed in order to fully understand and appreciate it. I feel like I could learn a lot more about it and am no expert as of now, although I take comfort in there being plenty of teaching resources available.

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

the amber spyglassReading level: 6.7
Lexile: 950
Series: His Dark Materials book 3
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Lyra and Will are in unspeakable danger. With help from Iorek Byrnison the armored bear and two tiny Gallivespian spies, they must journey to a dank and gray-lit world where no living soul has ever gone. All the while, Dr. Mary Malone builds a magnificent Amber Spyglass. An assassin hunts her down, and Lord Asriel, with a troop of shining angels, fights his mighty rebellion, in a battle of strange allies—and shocking sacrifice.

So much is happening in this final book of the series. So much. And with all the plot lines, one would hope that everything (or at least something) would come together in the end and make sense. But it didn’t. Too many undeveloped characters alongside confusing plots that never really answer our questions or deliver on the prophecy made me pretty disappointed.

One of the plots (the major one, in fact) throughout the entire series is Lord Asriel setting out to kill god. He kills the all-powerful angel who was taking over, but is god actually ever killed? Wait, was he the really old angel who disappeared and was only briefly mentioned? This entire, huge chunk of plot just fell apart for me.

I’m thoroughly confused about whether Ms. Coulter is redeemed or not. I don’t know if she was lying about her love for Lyra and how she’d changed. And if she was telling the truth, what made her change? She was an excellent villain that morphed into a crying, desperate lump of a woman with confusing motives.

My final bone to pick is about the love between Lyra and Will. It happened so quickly and messily that I was rather repulsed, which was also due to them being something like 12 and 14 years old. When they realized their love for each other, Lyra became a fairly useless teenager unable to read the alethiometer and unwilling to tell lies and stories. I prefer to remember her as she was in the first book.

With all the characters and plots happening all over the place, I legitimately enjoyed Mary’s adventures with the Mulefa. I loved the world building and the emphasis on what evolution can do. I also enjoyed Will and Lyra going to the World of the Dead, which reminded me of the necromancing of The Abhorsen series by Garth Nix that I loved so much.

Finally, I did like the final “message,” if that’s what you can call it. In order to allow a window between the worlds to remain open, Lyra and Will must spread good deeds and help people be…good. Okay, I like that. Spreading the word of being nice to each other is a great message. I don’t understand how that prevents dust from escaping, but I’ll just add that to the list of plot holes.

Any commentary I could give on recommendations for kids and what to do with this book in the classroom can be found in my reviews of The Golden Compass and/or The Subtle Knife.