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.

Will in Scarlet by Matthew Cody

Will in Scarlet

Reading level: 6.0 (ish)
Genre: Adventure
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Will Shackley is the son of a lord, and though just thirteen, he’s led a charmed, protected life and is the heir to Shackley House, while his father is away on the Third Crusade with King Richard the Lionheart.

But with King Richard’s absence, the winds of treason are blowing across England, and soon Shackley House becomes caught up in a dangerous power struggle that drives Will out of the only home he’s ever known. Alone, he flees into the dangerous Sherwood Forest, where he joins an elusive gang of bandits readers will immediately recognize.

How Will helps a drunkard named Rob become one of the most feared and revered criminals in history is a swashbuckling ride perfect for anyone who loves heroes, villains, and adventure.

I’m not terribly familiar with the Robin Hood story, so I had no expectations going into this book, which I quite enjoyed. All I knew of the Robin Hood tale was the concept of stealing from the rich to give money to the poor, and Will, one of the main characters, does this with such purpose and urgency that it just about made my heart burst. Because there were so many characters and the focus went back and forth between Will and Much, we don’t delve deeply into Will’s character, but his actions speak volumes. Part of the reason why this story bears its title is because “Scarlet” comes from Will’s conscience being drowned in the blood of the suffering peasants (er, serfs?) under his family’s control.

In essence, Will realizes he has led a sheltered life and that the people under his father’s control have been suffering in poverty. He attempts to remedy the damage he feels responsible for by giving the serfs money that is stolen from rich people. Of course, these rich people are mugged and often wounded, but I guess it’s the thought that counts.

Much’s side of the story brings in a bit of Mulan: a girl disguised as a boy. I liked her fierceness and her need to protect Will (and vice versa) even if they didn’t trust each other until the end. Will teaches us about fairness and doing what is right while Much teaches about resilience, toughness, and being true to yourself.

I incorrectly assumed that Will would become our Robin Hood, because it’s his idea to give the stolen silver to a poor family in the first place. However, it turns out that it’s Rob that’s our Robin Hood (which, admittedly, should have been obvious just from the name…). Rob teaches us about having purpose in life. One question that never got answered, however,  was how Rob’s last name became “Hood.” Anyway, minor details…

Will in Scarlet is relatively new and not yet leveled with Scholastic. My guess at a reading level is 6th grade. Since it takes place in medieval times, some of the vocabulary is complex and specific to that time period, which makes it not particularly suitable for ELLs.  In addition, people’s titles (i.e. lord) might also be confusing. It’s more of a middle grade text, but I could see high schoolers enjoying it, too.

One aspect that might upset parents is Rob’s drinking. He’s a drunk for the first part of the book but transforms once he finds purpose, thanks to Will. I would argue that drinking is painted in a negative light; Rob’s drinking makes him useless and smelly. He comes alive only when he is sober, so, if anything, students are taught that drinking is a gross habit and does not solve your problems. To be really critical, some parents might have an issue with glorifying criminals, which the Merry Men are. First, the Merry Men live difficult and dangerous lives. Secondly, the Robin Hood story has been turned into a Disney movie. Lastly, kids play video games as criminals (I think?) such as Grand Theft Auto, so being on the side of the “bad guys” is nothing new, and it’s hardly the message of the story.

Will in Scarlet  is my thirty-first book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Good-bye Marianne: A Story of Growing Up in Nazi Germany by Irene N. Watts

Good-bye MarianneReading level: 5.5(ish)
Genre: Historical fiction
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

As autumn turns toward winter in 1938 Berlin, life for Marianne Kohn, a young Jewish girl, begins to crumble. First there was the burning of the neighbourhood shops. Then her father, a mild-mannered bookseller, must leave the family and go into hiding. No longer allowed to go to school or even sit in a café, Marianne’s only comfort is her beloved mother. Things are bad, but could they get even worse? Based on true events, this fictional account of hatred and racism speaks volumes about both history and human nature.

Good-bye Marianne is a solid, middle level Holocaust book that I am pleased to own. It is no great work of literature, but it can be an excellent, gentle (if one can use such a term with this time period) introduction to the Holocaust. It could also be an interesting story to students who are refugees themselves.

This story is a good example of a book that needs the author’s note in the front! Historical fiction stories are much more interesting to me if I know they’re based on true events and/or an experience the author lived, as in Good-bye Marianne. Like I’ve said, I’ve studied the Holocaust for years and years, but I never learned about the Kindertransporte. To summarize, the Kindertransporte was the transportation of children out of Nazi Germany into England, organized by the British government.

Since Marianne is so young (11 years old), we feel her fear, frustration, and deceit even if she doesn’t know exactly why these horrible things are happening to her and the people she cares about. Really, the book could be about any time period in which one group of people showed intolerance toward another, because that is what this story is about at its core: how people can be so awful to each other, but how there are many good people, too. It’s also about sacrifice. Questions to get students interested might be, “Would you travel to another country by yourself to escape potential arrest and execution while leaving your family behind?” or “If someone made fun of you for your religion or family or something dear to you, could you forgive that person?”

This story isn’t leveled by Scholastic, so I’m guessing the reading level is around 5th grade. The reading level, age of Marianne, and the general simplicity of the story make this book geared towards middle schoolers. There is a decent bit of German vocabulary that might make ELLs confused, however. For example, they would need to know that Mutti means mother (I think?) and that fuhrer refers to Hitler. There are a few British English spellings, since the author is an English refugee. But otherwise, I think it’s okay for ELLs to read independently, especially if they’re around an L3 or higher or are good at not getting hung up on words they don’t know.

Good-bye Marianne is my thirtieth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Petey by Ben Mikaelsen

PeteyReading level: 6.1
Lexile: 740
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

In 1922, at the age of two, Petey’s distraught parents commit him to the state’s insane asylum, unaware that their son is actually suffering from severe cerebral palsy. Bound by his wheelchair and struggling to communicate with the people around him, Petey finds a way to remain kind and generous despite the horrific conditions in his new “home.” Through the decades, he befriends several caretakers but is heartbroken when each eventually leaves him. Determined not to be hurt again, he vows to no longer let hope of lifelong friends and family torment him.

That changes after he is moved into a nursing home and meets a young teen named Trevor Ladd; he sees something in the boy and decides to risk friendship one last time. Trevor, new to town and a bit of a loner, is at first weary of the old man in the wheelchair. But after hearing more of his story, Trevor learns that there is much more to Petey than meets the eye.

Petey is an extraordinary story that has the potential to change lives. One teen on goodreads wrote in her review that she used to bully kids with disabilities, but she stopped once she read this book. Even if you’re not a bully yourself, it’ll prompt you to think differently about people with disabilities and the impact that a single person can have on another’s life. In addition, Petey’s character is one that will stick with me for a long time. If I can be as kind and upbeat as him, then I will have lived a great life.

Although the cover looks pretty dull, I was interested in the story from the very start. It isn’t told through Petey’s voice but through a 3rd person narrative that describes what Petey is thinking and feeling. This narration is done expertly and realistically. I can’t think of another story in which a person with disabilities is both the highlight of the story and where the reader could know that character’s thoughts.

My only complaint is that the story is a little too “fluffy,” mostly at the end, to the point that it isn’t necessarily realistic, but it was always very touching (have some tissues on hand).

It is mostly a middle level book (due to grade level. Plus Trevor is in 8th grade) but I could see high schoolers enjoying it as well. It isn’t particularly ELL-friendly because of complex, descriptive vocabulary. However, this book would work well (especially at the upper elementary or middle level) as a class read-aloud if studying tolerance, friendship, disabilities, bullying, hardship…

There isn’t much action in the story, but it is definitely intriguing. I would recommend Petey to two types of students: those who are quick to judge and could be taught a lesson from this story; and those who are patient, careful readers who open their hearts to fabulous characters such as Petey and Trevor

Petey is my twenty-ninth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Children of the Fire by Harriette Gillem Robinet

Children of the FireReading level: 5.8
Lexile: 590
Genre: Historical fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

By the winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction, this middle-grade novel is the perfect curriculum tie-in for classroom discussions about disasters and 19th century America. Eleven-year-old Hallelujah is intrigued by the fires that are starting up all over Chicago in 1877–but what she doesn’t realize is that it is the Great Fire and her life will be irrevocably changed.

Children of the Fire is a pretty solid historical fiction novel that could legitimately get (younger) students interested about history – specifically the Great Chicago Fire. Approximately half of the story takes place with Hallelujah in the midst of the fire. The last half is about her and those around her dealing with the aftermath. It’s a pretty quick read, too, although it is a little outdated. Getting kids interested might just take a quick book talk and/or an ugly book cover reading challenge. Try reading the first few paragraphs aloud, as they are pretty gripping.

The over all message of the story is that we are all the same (i.e. human) no matter our religion or color of skin. This theme is blatantly stated multiple times, which was annoying to me, but might be useful for younger readers. It’s interesting seeing characters changing their perceptions of one another as they all cope with a shared catastrophe. This story is also about the power of children can have. I truly did not like Hallelujah, who was stubborn and mean, but she changes drastically while she is in the midst of the fire and transforms into a loveable character who makes a huge difference in the lives of many.

The only red flag is that the N-word is used a few times, but it is always clear that it is a derogatory term that Hallelujah doesn’t like to be called. The frequency of Ebonics is enough for me to not recommend it for ELLs, although I would definitely be in favor of reading it as a class book if the teacher is able to explain confusing language. However, it is written for younger readers, and I wouldn’t use this book as a class text for any students older than 6th grade, although individual readers older than that may enjoy it (through middle school, anyway).

Children of the Fire is my twenty-eighth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

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