Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan

Boy Meets BoyReading level: 6.3
Lexile: 730
Genre: Romance, LGBT
ELL-Friendly: Mostly
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

This is the story of Paul, a sophomore at a high school like no other: The cheerleaders ride Harleys, the homecoming queen used to be a guy named Daryl (she now prefers Infinite Darlene and is also the star quarterback), and the gay-straight alliance was formed to help the straight kids learn how to dance.

When Paul meets Noah, he thinks he’s found the one his heart is made for. Until he blows it. The school bookie says the odds are 12-to-1 against him getting Noah back, but Paul’s not giving up without playing his love really loud. His best friend Joni might be drifting away, his other best friend Tony might be dealing with ultra-religious parents, and his ex-boyfriend Kyle might not be going away anytime soon, but sometimes everything needs to fall apart before it can really fit together right.

David Levithan is a bit of a literary hero to me because he writes such fabulous gay characters. But that’s also because my experience with LGBT literature is fairly minimal. In any case, I read Boy Meets Boy because I love the author, even though Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was a bit of a bust for me. Boy Meets Boy is, in a lot of ways, a typical romance story. That part I didn’t care for very much because I’m not one for the romance genre as a whole. But what Boy Meets Boy does differently and spectacularly is create “a high school like no other.”

This story makes me wonder what our schools could be like if kids weren’t afraid to come out as gay to their friends, community, and family. With the freedom to do this, Levithan opens all sorts of doors, like straight boys having crushes on manly-quarterbacks-turned-girls and characters not tip-toeing around the “is he gay?” question and moving straight into business.

To throw a wrench into this little utopia, Paul’s friend Tony’s parents try to make him not gay anymore, which is something that happens all the time over here in the real world. Tony teaches us that even when parents try to change something about their child, it is out of love, even if it hurts. At least in this circumstance.

I would recommend this book to students who enjoy romance, whether or not they’re gay. It’s just a fun story about love and more importantly about friendship. What I took away from the story wasn’t the love between Paul and Noah but the friendship between Paul and all his friends and family. I might also recommend it to students who read books not just for the plot but for the writing. (Do those students even exist?) Levithan’s prose flows like poetry and is half the fun of reading his stories.

It’s more of a high school book because the characters are in high school, but it’s fine for upper middle school. I also don’t recall anything inappropriate unless parents think that any sort of gay content is inappropriate.

Finally, it is a coming-of-age story as Paul tries to figure out himself and his loves and his friends. These subjects relate to all adolescents, because LGBT books are for everyone.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Aristotle and DanteReading level: 5.0 (ish)
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

Like Eleanor and Park, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe has a lot of hype surrounding it, but it lived up to every ounce of that hype. It is as complex and stunningly beautiful as the book cover, and I wish it never had to end. It was that kind of book.

This story has a lot of levels. First, there is deep friendship between the two boys. Then there’s the sexuality and romance. Add to that Ari’s coming of age a Mexican-American confused about identity and angry about an absent brother wrapped together in prose that feels like poetry. It’s not a book driven by plot. Rather, it’s driven by Ari moving forward with his life and plodding through his thoughts to discover himself in all his teenage boyness.

I would recommend this book to more mature readers who enjoy beautiful, deep stories and don’t need to be entertained by a fast-moving plot. Readers must be willing to open their hearts to these characters and to be gentle and nonjudgmental, as you would treat a friend. I might also recommend it to a boy searching for his identity, whether gay or not, but girls could easily enjoy this story, too. It’s definitely not boy-exclusive.

I adore Dante and Aristotle, of course, but I also love each of their parents. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a book with such realistic and fantastic parents. So often in YA lit, parents are either perfect or so flawed that you really can’t forgive them. These parents are flawed and forgivable and generally wonderful. I’ve spent way too long on this paragraph and have written so little, so I’ll move on…

I would give it a PG-13 sticker due to language and brief discussions of boy body parts and sex stuff. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for teenage boys to be thinking about, and nothing more graphic than kissing happens, but it’s still there.

Because the characters are in high school and the writing moves slowly, I would recommend it to high schoolers over middle schoolers. As a middle schooler, I was not about to slow down and savor a character or beautiful prose, and that is half the story! But a more mature middle schooler might just fall in love with the story…

Pick up Aristotle and Dante when you’re feeling introspective and when you’re not in a hurry. A nice cup of tea would go nicely.

Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff

Pictures of Hollis WoodsReading level: 4.5
Lexile: 650
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Summary:

Hollis Woods is an orphan and foster child, constantly bouncing from home to home, never really belonging while gaining a reputation for being nothing but trouble.  She is placed with a loving, elderly artist, and Hollis thinks she’s found her forever home at last. She realizes quickly that the woman she’s come to love is losing her memory and cannot support them. So Hollis takes the situation into her own hands, and they both run away together.

Pictures of Hollis Woods, I feel, is nothing particular new or moving. Orphan girl wants family, runs away, finds family, runs away again, finds family. What I thought was  interesting is the way this story is told. Hollis goes between past and present: the past of living with Steven’s family and the present of living with Josie. She remembers the past by recalling the pictures she drew. Pictures are Hollis’ way of making sense of her present, remembering the past, and, as it turns out, interpreting the past in order to make informed decisions for the future.

I would recommend this story to kids who enjoyed The Road to Paris and/or kids who enjoy slow-paced, deep, realistic fiction rather than fast-paced action. There is also a bit of mystery in the story about why Hollis left Steven’s family, and there is the anticipation of what will happen when Hollis and Josie flee together. I might also recommend Pictures of Hollis Woods to students who so badly want a loving family. Hollis teaches us that there is always hope and that to find hope, you must be resilient.

The reading level, lexile, and age of our main character (she’s 12) make this book best suited for middle school. From what I recall (again, I wasn’t paying super close attention), it’s ELL-friendly with pretty simple vocabulary. It might be helpful for students to know words such as picture, pencil, painting, shading, etc., because so much of Hollis’ identity is in her pictures.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and ParkReading level: 5.5 ish
Genre: Romance
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Two misfits.
One extraordinary love.

Eleanor… Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough…Eleanor.

Park… He knows she’ll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There’s a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises…Park.

Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Everything about reading Eleanor & Park made me nervous. I tend to dislike romance stories to begin with, but mostly this book had a lot to live up to from its multiple awards to its apparently incredible author. I’m please to say that I have no regrets. Eleanor & Park is a gorgeous book through and through.

Just from reading the above Goodreads summary, you can get a sense of the poetic language. For most of the story, the plot is slow moving, the author focusing on small moments and examining them up close. She alternates perspectives but unlike Flipped (that’s the only example I can think of right now), it’s not the same scene told twice. Eleanor and Park take up where the other leaves off.

The romance is sweet, of course. Looking back, though, what I appreciated the most is the juxtaposition of Eleanor and Park’s families. Park has it all and takes it all for granted. Eleanor has no money and a struggling family and is very cognizant of how her background is different from Park’s. I can only hope that kids (or adults for that matter) who read this book take a moment to think about what they have and to be thankful for it, no matter how much or little. Throughout the story, Eleanor’s classmates bully her because she’s different, but perhaps if they knew how she lived and with whom, they would have treated her with respect. Here is another reminder to not judge anyone harshly because everybody is fighting their own battles.

Tina is one of those bullies (or so we’re led to believe), and although she never seems like a kind, good person, she comes around to Eleanor in the end. It’s always heartwarming when the bully makes a change for the better. Doing something kind is never wasted.

Because this book has won so many YA awards, I was surprised at the language. There’s a lot of swearing and some crass sexual phrases as well. For those reasons, I’d put a rated-R sticker on my book if I were to put it in my classroom library. It’s definitely geared more towards high school because of language and the age and situations of our characters, so I might keep it off the middle school shelf unless it’s 8th grade.

I realize now that I was so wrapped up in the book that I forgot to think about its suitability for ELLs. Now that the book is back at the library, I can’t go back and look, but my memory says it’s not ELL-friendly for the most part. It has a lot of references to bands and comics from the ’70s. While that may seem like a small detail, these conversations make up the bulk of Eleanor and Park’s conversations at the beginning of the story.

I’ve been asked if Eleanor & Park is worth reading and if it lives up to the hype. I would say yes. It’s not a book that will necessarily knock your socks off, but you’ll find yourself closing the book for a second and thinking, “Wow.” Read it slowly and savor it.

The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch

The Name of this Book is SecretReading level: 5.3
Lexile: 810
Series: Secret book 1
Genre: Adventure, humor
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Warning: this description has not been authorized by Pseudonymous Bosch. As much as he’d love to sing the praises of his book (he is very vain), he wouldn’t want you to hear about his brave 11-year old heroes, Cass and Max-Ernest. Or about how a mysterious box of vials, the Symphony of Smells, sends them on the trail of a magician who has vanished under strange (and stinky) circumstances. And he certainly wouldn’t want you to know about the hair-raising adventures that follow and the nefarious villains they face. You see, not only is the name of this book secret, the story inside is, too. For it concerns a secret. A Big Secret.

I may have overlooked this entire series had an 8th grader at my student teaching placement not pointed it out to me. If the description and title look a little wacky, you’re right. The Name of This Book is Secret was pretty fun, not to mention snarky. It compares to The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket with the author’s coming through to interject explanations along with abundant danger and mystery.

This story is geared towards younger middle school/upper elementary, yet the lexile range is fairly high, making it not very well suited for ELLs. The vocabulary is pretty sophisticated although the plot itself is not. I think that this whole series could appeal to kids who are reluctant readers if they aren’t below the 5th grade reading level.

I decided about half way through this book that I wouldn’t continue with the series. I’ve been bored with middle level YA lately, but I am still interested in how the rest of the stories play out. There’s just 1000000 more books I’d rather read. That said, the Cass/Max-Earnest duo is excellent. (Unfortunately Max-Earnest seems to have no similarities to Max Ernst.) They are unlikely friends, and they’re not perfect. However, they find ways to overcome their differences. And of course our villains are excellent. Very mysterious. 😉 This story teaches loyalty and bravery and does so in a clever way.

I’d recommend this book to (like I said) reluctant readers, kids with a good sense of humor, and those who like adventure/mystery.