Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

Finnikin of the RockReading level: 5.4
Lexile: 820
Series: Lumatere Chronicles book 1
Genre: Fantasy
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

At the age of nine, Finnikin is warned by the gods that he must sacrifice a pound of flesh to save his kingdom. He stands on the rock of the three wonders with his friend Prince Balthazar and Balthazar’s cousin, Lucian, and together they mix their blood to safeguard Lumatere.

But all safety is shattered during the five days of the unspeakable, when the king and queen and their children are brutally murdered in the palace. An impostor seizes the throne, a curse binds all who remain inside Lumatere’s walls, and those who escape are left to roam the land as exiles, dying by the thousands in fever camps.

Ten years later, Finnikin is summoned to another rock–to meet Evanjalin, a young novice with a startling claim: Balthazar, heir to the throne of Lumatere, is alive. This arrogant young woman claims she’ll lead Finnikin and his mentor, Sir Topher, to the prince. Instead, her leadership points them perilously toward home. Does Finnikin dare believe that Lumatere might one day rise united? Evanjalin is not what she seems, and the startling truth will test Finnikin’s faith not only in her but in all he knows to be true about himself and his destiny.

I am not the first to be impressed by this book, and I hope to do it justice with this review. This is one of those books where I had the feeling I was in the presence of something great but didn’t quite know for sure until about the middle and I realized, wow, this is pretty excellent. Not to mention the giant plot twist. In particular (and I am not the first to say this, either), the world-building is fantastic. It compares to The Lord of the Rings in that way, minus unnecessary details and complexities.

I struggled to get into the characters, but now that the first book is over, Finnikin and Evanjalin are sticking with me. Finnikin of the Rock focuses less on character development for a majority of the story and more on the struggles of the people of Lumatere. But through that shared struggle and how each person deals with it, we come to learn more about each character, little by little. This is one of those stories that legitimately needs a sequel or two to build on the characters. I’m going to be really upset if Finnikin and Evanjalin are not highlighted in the books to come.

Most importantly, these characters are so real. They’re not perfect and don’t always make good decisions. They are inconsistent with their strengths and falter when heroes in fairy tales would not. This is fantasy at its finest because it could almost, almost be real. Or so I’d like to think.

There are a few school-inappropriate parts that include Froi attempting to rape Evanjalin, Finnikin going to a whore, and brief foul language. These first two “issues” aren’t graphic and are in fact pretty subtle. We actually come to like Froi, and Evanjalin does too, although she never forgives him. But even though he almost commits one of the worst crimes a person can do to another, we can’t help but see the better side of Froi as he sees the best in himself.

I would recommend Finnikin of the Rock to fans of fantasy, particularly those who enjoy The Lord of the Rings or books like The False Prince/fantasy books involving royalty.

Because the lexile is high and names of people and places are complicated, it’s not very ELL friendly. The interest level is actually 9th grade, but I think it would be fine for upper middle school. I’d put a pg-13 sticker on it for the near rape of Evanjalin, those pesky whores stepping into the picture, language, and general violence. But again, there’s nothing graphic that might outrage anybody. The closest I got to being offended was the near-forgiveness of Froi for his attempted rape.

BuzzFeed Teacher Hacks

BuzzFeed published an article about teacher hacks that mostly pertain to behavior management.

Here are the hacks that I fond the most interesting:

  • stamp the papers of students’ who are working quietly/on task. Don’t even say anything. Just start stamping. Stamps might mean nothing or might be worth a special point or ticket towards a prize.
  • use table cloths as backdrops of bulletin boards

Oh, I guess that’s all that I thought was clever.

Not Classroom Economy

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking over the months about the practicality of implementing a successful classroom economy system, especially within my first few years of teaching. I think that the smarter decision would be to simplify greatly until I’m ready to take on more.

Here are some of my current ideas to reward behavior, citizenship, and schoolwork.

First, produce tickets that reward three different skills/behaviors:

1. grades (scholar dollars)
2. behavior and classroom chores (citizen dollar)
3. reading (reading dollar; given as kids finish books)

The teacher gives the tickets to students as the behaviors happen. There might also be a kiddo or two that are the teachers’ helpers who spot good behavior and students who are helping around the classroom. These kids can be compensated with extra citizen dollars.

Each ticket can be filled out by the student and put into a raffle.

At the end of each week, the teacher will draw two winners from each of the sections. One winner will be chosen randomly. The other winner will be pre-chosen and will be the teacher’s choice.

The prizes might be small school supplies trinkets.

At the end of each month, super prizes are given out in each category to reward students who worked exceptionally hard. These prizes might include fancy school supplies such as a nice pen or notebook, and books for the reading winners.

Every few months there may be an all or nothing challenge in one of the categories in which ALL students must have at least one ticket in the raffle or nobody gets anything. The prize for having everybody in the raffle might be an educational movie period, educational art project, the teacher dresses up in something funny, or something else educational and fun that rewards the whole class.

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Life as we knew itReading level: 5.0 (ish)
Lexile: 770
Series: Life As We Knew It book 1
Genre: Science fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Miranda’s disbelief turns to fear in a split second when a meteor knocks the moon closer to the earth. How should her family prepare for the future when worldwide tsunamis wipe out the coasts, earthquakes rock the continents, and volcanic ash blocks out the sun? As summer turns to Arctic winter, Miranda, her two brothers, and their mother retreat to the unexpected safe haven of their sunroom, where they subsist on stockpiled food and limited water in the warmth of a wood-burning stove.

This book is fairly popular amongst middle schoolers, so I jumped at the opportunity to buy it for a few cents. It was so worth it. I mean, doesn’t the summary alone sound interesting? The answer is yes. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, actually.

Here is my warning. While this book is targeted at the middle school/lower high school age group, it is dark. There is death and suffering at every turn, and it’s quite morbid as Miranda prepares herself to die and watches those around her perish. This story is not for the faint of heart, but it’s so intense that it could interest both boys and girls and hold on with an intensity that other books may not be able to accomplish.

I was slightly put off by the diary-style writing, which I tend to dislike as a general rule, but it flowed really well. For one, the narrator/diary author Miranda adds dialogue, so it flowed like a novel and not a diary. However, the diary style worked out well in that Miranda’s voice, hopes, fears, crushes, etc., come out loud and clear. She is very much a teenage girl, and a delightful one (if slightly irritating sometimes) at that. While it’s written from a girl’s point of view, I bet boys could be persuaded to at least try it just because it’s so intense. There’s only a little bit of romance that boys might cringe at… 🙂

Not only is Miranda’s voice realistic but the whole situation is, too. As far as my limited science knowledge is concerned, the moon getting knocked closer to Earth could very well cause the natural disasters and situations described in this book. One of Miranda’s friends becomes enveloped in her Christian faith to the point where she starves herself because God wants her to. Miranda winds up yelling at her friend’s pastor about how God isn’t helping anyone and neither is faith. I could see how religious families might get upset because this one, limited aspect of religion is painted in a negative light due to fanaticism. However, that is but one small part of the story.

The other potential red flags are occasional swear words and just a few mentions of sex. They were so brief and unimportant that I can’t even remember the context. Therefore, taking into account the brief, adult language and the morbidity of the whole situation, I’d say that it’s best for upper middle schoolers, 7th and up. Sixth graders are often taking that year to transition from elementary to middle school and are really 5th graders at heart.

The bad news is that Life As We Knew It is the first in a series that has decreasing ratings. After the whole Maze Runner series fiasco, I’m not buying into series just because I read the first book. The good news is that this story wraps up well and not on a cliffhanger.

Go forth, my friends, and read this book if you’re looking for a depressing yet hopeful thrill ride that will make you appreciate the lives we have now.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Nick and NorahReading level: 7.1
Lexile: 1020
Genre: Romance
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: high school

Scholastic’s summary:

It all starts when Nick asks Norah to be his girlfriend for five minutes. He only needs five minutes to avoid his ex-girlfriend, who’ s just walked in to his band’ s show. With a new guy. And then, with one kiss, Nick and Norah are off on an adventure set against the backdrop of New York City— and smack in the middle of all the joy, anxiety, confusion, and excitement of a first date.

This he said/she said romance is a sexy, funny roller coaster of a story about one date over one very long night, with two teenagers, both recovering from broken hearts, who are just trying to figure out who they want to be— and where the next great band is playing.

I’ve been meaning to read Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist for a few years, beginning when I discovered the amazing David Levithan. I had really high hopes but was left fairly disappointed. But, like I said with Let It Snow, teen romance isn’t really my thing, but it might be your thing, so take my opinions with a grain of salt.

The story is told through alternating viewpoints, which is pulled off beautifully with the audiobook I listened to. The narration is excellent. Another plus is that the voices of these two teenagers are incredibly realistic. Nick and Norah are heartbroken, not heartbroken, confused, heartbroken again, scared, adventurous, confused some more… Now that I am not a teenager and do not wish to relive that experience ever again, I wasn’t super intrigued by these characters. Because there isn’t a whole lot of action and most of the story is the inner thoughts of each character, the teenage introspection got to be a bit much. That said, the ultimate message is to take a leap of faith because life is scary, but you can’t live scared. But also don’t be stupid, but if you are (because you will make stupid decisions), learn from them and grow.

I will regretfully not be putting this book in my classroom library unless I maybe teach high school. This book has the most f-bombs (among other choice swear words) than any other book I can recall. And there’s some sort-of-sex scenes, which isn’t super graphic but is enough to potentially make parents uncomfortable/outraged. But, like I said, all this can be justified by the very teenage-ness of the whole book, and teenagers need books they can connect to. However, because of the excessive language and “adult content,” I would but a “rated R” sticker on it if it goes into the classroom at all. It might also wind up being one of those books that I reserve for a certain student who I feel would “get” it – maybe a reluctant teen reader with a broken heart.

It’s not particularly ELL-friendly because of the high lexile, a pretty sophisticated vocab, and references to pop culture and music. I can’t help but think that if readers know the major American curse words, they’re halfway to understanding all the words in the story. But I exaggerate…

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

city of emberReading level: 5.1
Lexile: 680
Series: Book of Ember, book 1
Genre: Dystopian
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Many hundreds of years ago, the city of Ember was created by the Builders to contain everything needed for human survival. It worked…but now the storerooms are almost out of food, crops are blighted, corruption is spreading through the city and worst of all—the lights are failing. Soon Ember could be engulfed by darkness….

But when two children, Lina and Doon, discover fragments of an ancient parchment, they begin to wonder if there could be a way out of Ember. Can they decipher the words from long ago and find a new future for everyone? Will the people of Ember listen to them?

Our main characters Lina and Doon live in a less-than-ideal city (their whole world) where there is no sun, and all light comes from electricity. Apparently there is no sky, and the city if self-contained while everything beyond the lighted areas are unknown. We learn little bits and pieces about how Ember is different from where we live today, and my favorite part of the book was the world building because it’s some of the few details the author lets us figure out by ourselves.

The City of Ember is similar to Divergent where the outside is unknown but we know there’s something out there that may or may not be better. The City of Ember is also similar to The Giver where all kids are assigned a job to contribute to the small, artificial society. Ember is less dark (no pun intended) and more juvenile in comparison but it has the same sense of mystery and complexities of how the city functions.

There’s nothing particularly exceptional about Lina and Doon, but as they risk more and more to find a way out of Ember, they make themselves exceptional. What I don’t like about them is that Doon overcomes his dislike of Lina very quickly while Lina gets over the death of a certain family member I will not name (spoilers…) too quickly to be realistic. In essence, the characters have likeable traits but the way they interact with each other and form relationships is nothing memorable or touching.

I can definitely see kids liking this book. It’s a quick, easy, intriguing read, but it is for the younger audiences of upper elementary to lower middle school. The simplicity of the plot and writing caused me to rate it 3 out of 5 stars, and I am left feeling pretty “meh” about the whole experience. The City of Ember ends on a significant cliffhanger, but my lack of enthusiasm about this book and goodreads reviewers’ falling ratings of all following books lead me to not pursue the rest of the series.

This book could be pretty easy to talk up to boys and girls because the premise really is interesting if not executed in an elegant manner (which is okay because it’s written for kids). It’s ELL-friendly, and I would recommend it to young or struggling readers whose reading levels aren’t high enough to tackle other popular dystopian novels (Divergent, for example).