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.

 

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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.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

the golden compassReading level: 6.7
Lexile: 930
Series: His Dark Materials, book 1
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the compass of the title. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.

My mom tried reading this book aloud to me when I was younger, but we just couldn’t get through more than a few chapters. Then, in college, I read it for a young adult lit class, and I didn’t think it was anything particularly special. But I kept hearing great things about it from students and adults, so I thought I would give it another, honest try but with audiobooks this time. The superb narration of Philip Pullman himself, along with a slew of cast members’ voices, made me into a fan.

I think that part of the reason I didn’t get into The Golden Compass as a young child and maybe even again in college is because the story is complex and not always incredibly interesting, much like The Lord of the Rings series. The writing is beautiful, the characters are excellent, but there were times when explanations just took too long! Maybe that’s just me having a short attention span. Luckily, the audiobook is done so well that I was interested in these duller moments that I probably sped through without care upon my first read-through.

Now that you know the history of this book and me, I will say that I will happily place this book and its entire series (going through the second audiobook right now) in my classroom library at either the high school or middle school level. There are two issues that parents may have, however:

1. Tartars. These are the scapegoated, faceless bad guys. Tartars were actual people, however. We wouldn’t tolerate such insensitivity if “African Americans” or “Jews” were put in the place of Tartars, would we? So why is this okay? Well, it’s not okay and it’s not excusable. However, this race of people no longer exists (says Wikipedia). I suppose it’s sort of like scapegoating “vikings.” In any case, Tartars as bad guys might be insensitive, but the issue is minor in my eyes.

2. Promoting atheism – say some sources. I don’t think it’s promoting anything or has any agenda (Pullman’s personal beliefs aside), but there are some bits that made me cringe. There is one point where Lord Asriel reads aloud a part from Genesis (straight out of the the Old Testament I assume), but some parts are changed to add in daemons, which some could see as blasphemy. While doing so may also have been insensitive to who take the Old Testament as the word of God, Pullman is using and adapting a text under his creative license. I also don’t feel as though Pullman is saying that all religious people are bad – just that people can look at religious teachings and texts to interpret them in different ways, some of which are harmful to others. This has happened in history countless times.

Even if parents get hung up on these issues, I would argue that the good outweighs the bad. The Golden Compass is an astoundingly well-written, intriguing story with rich vocabulary. It stretches readers’ mind to consider other words, and the character of Lyra is unlike any other: stubborn, brilliant, driven, resilient, loving…

It’s not ELL friendly due to complex vocabulary, however. It’s got a pretty high lexile considering it’s leveled at under the 7th grade. The Golden Compass is one of those books that younger readers can enjoy (although I didn’t, myself…) for the story while older readers can appreciate in all its intricacies, characters, and world-building. Needless to say, I’m happy to have fallen in love with this story at last.

The Fattening Hut by Pat Lowery Collins

fattening hutReading level: ~7
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Helen doesn’t want to stay in the fattening hut. She’s told her mother that she’s too young, not ready for it. Why must she marry so soon? She doesn’t want to gorge on rich meals for months—until she is round and heavy, like a good bride should be. Just like her mother and sister before her, just like all the women of her tribe. When she finds out the terrible secret the fattening hut harbors, she becomes even more confused and defiant. Lonely, scared, and feeling hemmed in by family, by culture, and by tradition, Helen fights for the chance to be educated, young, and free.

The Fattening Hut is  a long, free-form poem. Quite honestly, I would have preferred prose, as I don’t see the point of free-form poetry. The line breaks have always seemed arbitrary. The author actually explains at the end that she originally started writing the story in prose but changed to free-form poem, which she felt was a better fit.

The author’s note at the end of the book (at least in my ARC copy) is helpful in explaining a few things, namely that the culture and location in this story is a conglomerate of real places and the author’s imagination. She took aspects of Nigerian culture and rituals and placed her characters on a fictional island that might as well be a real place. I appreciated Collins making up the location, (parts of) rituals, and religion because you get into repatriation issues when authors write about cultures not their own.

Right from the beginning, The Fattening Hut is interesting because girls are fattened before being married because being skinny is not attractive or healthy. Helen, our narrator, isn’t buying it and questions the rules of the culture, such as geting fat, having to marry someone she doesn’t love, being submissive to men… When she learns about the female genital cutting ceremony, she flees the fattening hut and seeks a safe haven, which is currently happening (in reality) in places around Africa and possibly in other places in which female cutting is performed.

The suggested reader interest age, according to Scholastic, is 9th grade. There is absolutely nothing graphic in this story, but the concept itself is uncomfortable to think about and discuss for many of us. Due to the content, then, I suggest this book for high school readers, although I have no qualms about sticking it in a middle school library with a pg-13 rating sticker. Also, apparently Scholastic can’t level this book, possibly because it’s a poem. Anyway, my best guess for a reading level is 7th grade because it’s going to take a strong reader to understand the vocabulary and the writing that implies the culture’s secrets more than saying so directly.

It isn’t ELL-friendly because of complex vocabulary and syntax. There are words for plants and animals that I wasn’t familiar with but may be common knowledge to kiddos from parts of Africa or surrounding areas. The syntax is…not sure how to explain this…er…complex. The writing is beautiful and descriptive, but it’s a bit tricky.

I didn’t love this book, but I did like it enough to rate it 3 out of 5 stars on goodreads.  I was rooting for Helen to follow her heart, which told her to rebel against her culture. The plot was just slow moving. Something else that irked me was that the culture in which Helen lives is portrayed so negatively: female genital cutting, male dominance, forced arrange marriage… While these may be very real parts of cultures today, the message is loud and clear that all of these aspects are wrong. Coming from a white author not from Africa, I was a little uncomfortable. Helen’s culture is almost made out to be barbaric, and I failed to see many redeeming qualities. I don’t want students to read this story and generalize that all cultures that practice FGC or, worse, all cultures in Africa, are this way and are terrible places for women.

The Fattening Hut is my nineteenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Life is Funny by E.R. Frank

Life is FunnyReading level: 6.1
Lexile: 830
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

From the outside, they’re simply a group of urban teenagers. But from the inside, they’re some of the most complex people you’ll ever meet. There’s Eric, fiercely protective of his brother Mickey-but he has a secret that holds together his past and future. Sonia, struggling to live the life of a good Muslim girl in a foreign America. Gingerbread and Keisha, who fall in love despite themselves. Life Is Funny strips away the defenses of one group of teenagers living today, right now-and shows their unbearably real lives.

Life is Funny gives a glimpse into the lives of 11 urban teens living in New York. Each of them face serious, realistic obstacles, making it a heart-wrenching and engaging book because real teens face these problems every day. It was a bit of a depressing read, but each story contains hope.

There is a lot to love about Life is Funny. All the characters have likeable, even loveable, qualities, and you can’t help but root for them. While the organization of the book was a bit confusing (time passing, new characters introduced all the time), the characters weave in and out of each other’s lives. And just when you’re getting attached to a character and have high hopes for their future, their chapter ends. The characters in this story are a reminder that people are facing all sorts of struggles and that the least we can do is not judge one another.

Here’s the problem for me as an educator, though. Think of all the topics in teen literature that people freak out about. ALL of those topics show up in these stories. It’s definitely a book for high schoolers (Scholastic says the interest level is 9th grade), and, because I’m paranoid, I wouldn’t put it in a high school library, either. I even contemplated donating the book because I won’t use it in class or read it again, but then I read some more reviews and remembered it’s won some awards. This book can reach kiddos who face hardships like the characters in the book do. When I was in high school, my band director held onto a clarinet for years, just waiting for the right student to come along to whom he could give it. I’ll hang onto Life is Funny in case I find the right reader.

Some of the characters’ voices use colloquialisms, slang, and Ebonics, making it a tricky read for ELLs. While these varied narrations help define our 11 characters, Monique and Eric in particular have distinct dialects that are tricky for me to read fluently and quickly.

Life is Funny is my twelfth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

It Ain’t All For Nothin’ by Walter Dean Myers

ain't all for nothin'Reading level: 5.4
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Seventeen-year-old Samar — a.k.a. Sam — has never known much about her Indian heritage. Her mom has deliberately kept Sam away from her old-fashioned family. It’s never bothered Sam, who is busy with school, friends, and a really cute but demanding boyfriend.But things change after 9/11. A guy in a turban shows up at Sam’s house, and he turns out to be her uncle. He wants to reconcile the family and teach Sam about her Sikh heritage. Sam isn’t sure what to do, until a girl at school calls her a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside. That decides it: Why shouldn’t Sam get to know her family? What is her mom so afraid of? Then some boys attack her uncle, shouting, “Go back home, Osama ” and Sam realizes she could be in danger — and also discovers how dangerous ignorance can be. Sam will need all her smarts and savvy to try to bridge two worlds and make them both her own.

My copy of It Ain’t All For Nothin’ has had a rough life. It lived in the library of a local high school and was “discarded,” the library bar code cut out of the front cover. The public library either tried to sell it at a book sale or deemed it unfit to sell, and so it wound up in a free book pile along with computer manuals for Windows 95 and outdated self-help books.

There’s probably a reason it’s been discarded again and again. The cover screams “dorky, boring, please don’t read me.” In fact, I couldn’t even find a picture on the internet of the cover that I own, printed in the late 1970s. Here are some ideas to help get this book (and other books with boring covers) in the hands of readers:

  • Give a book talk summarizing why students might like it.
  • Display it on the bookshelf under a sign or banner that says “Ugly book cover of the month” and has a blurb about why it’s not a boring book.
  • Create monthly book challenges for SSR/at-home reading assignments. Challenges may include:
    • Read a book with a dorky cover
    • Read a book featuring a main character of the opposite gender
    • Read a book in a genre different from what you’re used to

At the time I read this book, I was also reading Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit. She writes that African Americans tend to not tell object-centered stories like White people do. That is, their stories seem to go on and on without a central focus – at least that’s what I understood. It’s just a different way to telling stories and communicating. It Ain’t All For Nothin’ definitely had that feel, not just from sentence structure (some sentences were very long, connected by several conjunctions) but also because it was about Tippy’s 12-year old life, day by day, moment to moment. It’s hard to explain.

I say it’s not ELL-friendly because it’s written in the African American vernacular, aka Black English. Because we’re trying to teach ELLs “formal English,” this book might just be confusing. For African American youth, though, it might be liberating to read a book written in the language in which they speak.

I think this book is better suited for middle schoolers because the main character is 12, the reading level is 5th grade, and the language is fairly simple. However, since the book was originally in a high school library, it could be appropriate for that age group as well, especially for struggling readers. It would also make an excellent mentor text to show Tippy’s internal monologue that really defines this scared 12-year-old boy. It could be used in a lesson about narration, internal monologue, and giving characters distinct voices by using a variety of sentence structures.

There are lots of reasons why this book may not be appropriate for school:

  • references to “herb” i.e. marijuana
  • praying and references to Jesus
  • kids and adults drinking alcohol
  • kids doing illegal things (stealing, buying alcohol)
  • mild swearing

Allow me to refute these “problems.”

The praying comes from Grandma Carrie, a fiercely religious woman. Praying and talking to Jesus is something that defines her, and Tippy struggles to pray in a way that is meaningful to him. Religion isn’t prominent or stressed.

If all books with any swearing were banned from schools, there would be no more school libraries. Really, the swearing isn’t that bad.

Tippy never smokes marijuana and never says anything positive about it. It’s just what Lonnie and his friends do.

Tippy struggles to do what’s right regarding stealing and partaking in illegal activities with his father. By the end, he’s on the straight and narrow. He may not have his life figured out, but he knows he’s no thief. Each time he helps his father steal, something terrible happens and it terrifies him. The lesson: don’t steal.

He really drinks a lot of alcohol, and his father basically lets him except for once. Almost each time Tippy drinks, he gets sick. Once, he passed out in the street. He mentions that he never wanted to be like one of those drunkards passed out in the streets like he was…at age 12. Drinking just sounds like a terrible experience for him every time, so it is definitely not glorified.

Here are some quotes to prove that the book isn’t in favor of kids doing illicit activities:

Mr. Roland: “‘People don’t do things to hurt themselves unless they got problems. And that drinking ain’t doing nothing but hurting you'” (108).

Tippy: “It was good doing things that everybody else was doing if it was a right thing to do. That was because you had fun doing it and because you was a part of the world you always heard about or maybe saw on television” (112).

Tippy: “I never liked people who stole things, not even because of God and the Bible saying it was wrong – I just didn’t think it was the right way to live. I didn’t like people who lived like that, and now I didn’t like me very much either” (182).

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

The Hunger GamesReading level: 7
Series: The Hunger Games series book 1
Genre: Dystopian, romance
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

I read The Hunger Games trilogy all in one go a few years ago and was inspired to re-read all the books now that the Catching Fire movie is coming out in a few months. As I re-read The Hunger Games, I realized how much I had missed and simply forgotten by reading so quickly. As with the Divergent series, I read as fast as possible just to know what happened next – the mark of a great series! So re-reading was a treat as I compared the movie to the book and re-examined my thoughts about the character of Katniss, the purpose of the Hunger Games, and the love triangle of Katniss, Peeta, and Gale.

I was rather surprised by Katniss’ fragility and humanness. For some reason, I had made her into an infallible, tough-as-nails girl. This book made me appreciate her character as being so realistic. She’s a typical 16-year-old girl in that her feelings are confusing and she has very real fears. But she really is an incredible female role model: she’s smart, brave, adventurous, loyal, honest, and independent. If possible, I love her even more.

The romance between Katniss and Peeta continues to confuse me. Does Peeta really love Katniss? I know what happens to them in the end, but I was never sure if it was genuine. During my re-read, I paid close attention to small details regarding their feelings for one another, and whereas I doubted Peeta’s genuine love for Katniss, I’m pretty darn sure he does love her or at least always had a crush on her. Maybe his love confession was part of his strategy in the Hunger Games, but I don’t think he revealed his love just to make him (or Katniss) look good and to increase his chance at coming back alive.

This series has been banned in a lot of schools. For one, Haymitch is drunk most of the time, and that’s not a good thing for students to read, right? Well, drinking isn’t glorified, and it clearly gets in his way, not to mention contributes to his humiliation. Furthermore, Katniss and Peeta, our true heroes, are continually frustrated with Haymitch’s drinking. Once we get into Catching Fire and beyond, readers can see that he drinks to escape reality. It’s not just pointless and excessive drinking just because.

But really, the issue parents and administrators are having is that kids are killing each other in these books. The message here is that the government (the adults) are the real monsters, turning kids into killers for entertainment. The entire series, especially after the first book, is about rebellion and stopping the brutal murders of minors.

The killing scenes aren’t even that graphic. The only book that gave me nightmares when I was in middle school was Where the Red Fern Grows where one of the young boys gets hit with an axe and dies. I remember that scene fairly well even now, and, if my memory serves me well, none of the killing scenes in The Hunger Games were as graphic as that. The most gruesome of the scenes as where Katniss was trying to tend to Peeta’s leg. Furthermore, when Katniss kills anyone, she feels bad and continues to focus on the real enemy: the Capitol.

I think it’s important for this series to be in classrooms because kids love it. If it gets kids to read, especially reluctant readers, it has value. And as I said before, Katniss is a great female lead and role model – infinitely better than Bella in the Twilight series. And you know what? Scholastic says that the “interest level” is 6th grade. Not that Scholastic has the final word, but perhaps this company’s opinion can carry some weight.

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