A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

a great and terrible beautyReading level: 5.9
Lexile: 760
Series: Gemma Doyle, #1
Genre: Historical fiction, paranormal
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Sixteen-year-old Gemma has had an unconventional upbringing in India, until the day she foresees her mother’s death in a black, swirling vision that turns out to be true. Sent back to England, she is enrolled at Spence, a girls’ academy with a mysterious burned-out East Wing. There Gemma is snubbed by powerful Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and even her own dumpy roommate Ann, until she blackmails herself and Ann into the treacherous clique. Gemma is distressed to find that she has been followed from India by Kartik, a beautiful young man who warns her to fight off the visions. Nevertheless, they continue, and one night she is led by a child-spirit to find a diary that reveals the secrets of a mystical Order. The clique soon finds a way to accompany Gemma to the other-world realms of her visions “for a bit of fun” and to taste the power they will never have as Victorian wives, but they discover that the delights of the realms are overwhelmed by a menace they cannot control. Gemma is left with the knowledge that her role as the link between worlds leaves her with a mission to seek out the “others” and rebuild the Order.

Mmmm. Libba Bray. Mmmm. That book cover. She is just so good.

Much like Beauty Queens, A Great and Terrible Beauty is a reflection on how society treats and views women. This time, there’s a Victorian spin where we get a taste of how women were expected to live back in the day. But if you stop and think for…two seconds you’ll see how some of those expectations carry over to today. Oh, but Gemma and her friends try to swim against the current, which is very refreshing.

Victorian English stories are interesting. Victorian English stories with paranormal monsters and other worlds is fantastic. I felt that some of the plot moved on too slowly, but in retrospect it was just building a complex world with complex characters that will continue for two more books (hooray!). I liked how we are set up to dislike Pippa and her crew, but we grow to like them. Watching them all pull together and grow stronger from each other was empowering. I didn’t expect them to become so tight. Honestly, I still don’t trust any of them except Gemma and Anne, but I am open to changing my mind.

It’s not ELL friendly (this is Victorian England, remember) but not too complex for higher ELLs to understand. My fear was that it just wouldn’t be appropriate for various reasons. I’ll put a PG-14 sticker on it for a brief but vivid dreamed…romantic encounter, but other than that one instance, I see no issues with it.

I might start a book talk by telling students what life was like in Victorian times: women expected to do whatever their father/brother/husband said, cook and clean and not have a career, to not speak unless spoken to, to marry whomever their parents chose… Imagine how hard it would be to rebel or be happy at all under these conditions. Gemma finds a way to escape these constraints, briefly, by escaping into the Realms, a magical place where there is anything and everything you could wish for but which holds dark magic and great dangers. Would you still go there to escape no matter the risks?

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Wonder by R.J. Palacio

WonderReading level: 5.0
Lexile: 790
Genre: realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes (mostly)
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?

Wonder was one of the books that all kids wanted to read when I student taught 6th grade. One student in particular read it over and over. It was a natural choice to buy when I was looking for popular middle level books to add to my library.

I can’t say I was blown away, but it was a solid, memorable book. I was expecting it to be all from Auggie’s point of view, but I really enjoyed all the different viewpoints from his sister Olivia to her ex-best friend to Auggie’s friends. When someone you know and love has a disability or physical abnormality, those people’s lives are affected too.

I am a big fan of kids being nice to teach other. After the suicide of a friend due to bullying, I have zero tolerance for kids being mean. This story is a powerful message of the difference friends and bullies make. I would recommend Wonder to kids who feel different and need to know that their feelings are justified. I might also recommend it to kids who aren’t always nice to others to help them see the negative impact they make and the positive impact they could make if they made better choices. I’d also recommend it as an “easy” read for struggling readers because the story of straight-forward and easy to understand.

I’m a little surprised at the high lexile because it seemed pretty low level to me. That said, it’s ELL-friendly except for one chapter told from the viewpoint of Olivia’s boyfriend. I don’t have the book in front of me, but I don’t think there were capitals or correct punctuation.

For doing a book talk, I might ask students if they’ve seen kids being mean to each other or bullied. I might ask them to think about how awesome it felt when someone was nice to them when they needed support. I’d talk about how scary it is to start at a new school and how hard it would be if you’d never been to public school and had severe facial abnormalities. It’d be hard for that kid but also for the people who were nice to him as well as his family. A book talk may not be necessary because of its reputation, though.

Froi of the Exiles by Melina Marchetta

Froi of the ExilesReading level: ~5.4
Lexile: ~820
Series: Lumatere Chronicles book 2
Genre: Fantasy
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Three years after the curse on Lumatere was lifted, Froi has found his home… Or so he believes…

Fiercely loyal to the Queen and Finnikin, Froi has been trained roughly and lovingly by the Guard sworn to protect the royal family, and has learned to control his quick temper. But when he is sent on a secretive mission to the kingdom of Charyn, nothing could have prepared him for what he finds. Here he encounters a damaged people who are not who they seem, and must unravel both the dark bonds of kinship and the mysteries of a half-mad Princess.

And in this barren and mysterious place, he will discover that there is a song sleeping in his blood, and though Froi would rather not, the time has come to listen.

I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t like Froi as much as Finnikin because I was so mad at Froi the character that I didn’t see how I could love a book centered around him – a book much longer than Finnikin. It took just a few pages for me to change my mind completely. Froi is transformed from a thief with no values to an honorable young man. Froi’s character is beautifully constructed from his dedication to Lumatere to his caring for innocent human life. I am a fan.

I will never forget how Froi tried to rape Evanjeline. And neither will she. And neither will he. In fact, we learn that it is a constant source of shame and guilt for him. When he is presented with the opportunity to “lay with a woman” he refuses over and over because the girl in question does not do so willingly.

That said, this book is not exactly appropriate for middle school because a huge chunk of the book is about getting the princess of Charyn pregnant with Froi being the man for the job whether he likes it or not. There’s nothing terribly explicit but it is certainly at the forefront of the plot.

The plot twist in Finnikin really got me. It was one of those where I told my husband about how amazed I was even though he had no idea what I was talking about. With Froi, though, I wasn’t as blown away. Not sure why. It wasn’t like I saw it coming, but when it did, I wasn’t surprised. But that twist is one that caused me to really think about the story. Vague, I know, but I don’t want to spoil anything.

There isn’t much else to say about Froi that hasn’t been said about Finnikin. The world building continues to amaze me, and the characters are rich in ways few writers can achieve. It hasn’t been leveled through Scholastic, so the reading level and lexile are taken from what was provided for Finnikin. My only complaint is that the plot is a little stagnant at times, making it perhaps a bit longer than necessary. And boy, it is long. But worth it.

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.

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