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.

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.

Gideon by Chester Aaron

GideonReading level: 7(ish)
Genre: Historical fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

After losing family and friends, Gideon must bury religion and identity in order to survive the Warsaw ghetto and Treblinka concentration camp during World War II.

I got to about page 50 and had to stop. So bored.

However, the book has a lot of potential. It isn’t just about a concentration camp. At least the first part is about living in the Warsaw Ghetto. Later on (I’m guessing), we would have learned of uprisings, which is another topic often not written about in YA Holocaust lit.

The problem I had with Gideon is that it’s not written like a novel. It’s written like a memoir, which is fine; I like memoirs. But it’s not a memoir because it’s not true. Part of what bored me was that it reads like a history textbook (almost). If I wanted to read non-fiction about the Holocaust (which I don’t…I grew up studying it year after year), I wouldn’t have picked up a YA novel. I kept waiting for the plot show itself in full force. Maybe it does after page 50, but I didn’t stick around to find out.

That said, I will keep it and put it in my classroom library. It will have a pg-13 sticker on it due to the graphic nature of all Holocaust lit: dead bodies, violence, humiliation, drinking… From the first 50 pages, there is nothing too graphic in Gideon, but I want readers to be warned before they pick up the book anyway.

It seems to be written more for high school students but is okay for upper middle school, too. It’s not ELL friendly, not only due to Polish, German, and Yiddish? names but vocabulary in those languages as well that is not always explained. I made my best guess regarding the reading level as it is not leveled by Scholastic.

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.

Cousins by Virginia Hamilton

cousinsReading level: 5.5
Lexile: 550
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Cammy loves her family – except for her cousin Patty Ann. Though she knows she shouldn’t feel this way, she can’t help it. Patty Ann is too perfect to like, too perfect to be a friend.

If the summary is any indication about the simplicity of Cousins, you’ll understand why I gave up half way through this book. I thought it was boring and overly simplistic as it is told through the narration of a young girl. What kept me reading all the way to page 70 was that I had a student in mind who I thought might like this story, so I tried to like it, too.  I’ll keep the book, but I doubt many students will pick it up.

The story is simplistic, yes, but it also has bigger issues such as aging and death, love and friendship, teenage alcoholism, and eating disorders. The latter two are only toughed upon in the first half, and I doubt they are discussed in much depth later on.

I would recommend this story to students who need simple stories and don’t necessarily need a plot to be interested. Those students are few and far between, but, like I said, I had a student in mind while I read Cousins. It’s not particularly ELL-friendly due to sentence fragments, colloquialisms, and some Ebonics.

Journey of the Sparrows by Fran Leeper Buss

Journey of the SparrowsReading level: 6.3
Lexile: 760
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Mostly
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Nailed into a crate in the back of a truck, fifteen-year-old Maria, her older sister, Julia, their little brother, Oscar, and a boy named Tomas endure a terrifying and torturous journey across the U.S. border and then north to Chicago. There they struggle to find work-cleaning, sewing, washing dishes-always fearful of arrest and deportation back to the cruelties of El Salvador. By turns heartbreaking and hopeful, this moving story of the secret lives of immigrants is not to be missed.

If you’re like me, you may not be too thrilled about reading a book with such heavy content. I was a few chapters into the story when I realized that Journey of the Sparrows had gripped me. I couldn’t put it down as I wondered what would happen to Maria and her family.

This story is also painfully realistic, making me think about immigration a bit differently. Students whose families are recent immigrants, who must provide for their family, and who take care of younger relatives might identify with Maria’s story. Students who have no experience with immigration might read this story and see the world differently.

Maria is a resilient and kind young woman, and I can’t help but admire her. Her relationship with Tomas is also beautiful in the way they care for each other but are too young to know exactly what to do about it. The story is painful, yes, but it is full of hope. It’s similar to Esperanza Rising in that the main characters are young women who learn to take care of their family, but in different ways. Maria has always known hardship whereas Esperanza is new to it.

My copy of the book is old and outdated. The over is pretty uninteresting-looking, but I might do a book talk about asking students to think about what it might be like to flee your country out of necessity and arrive in a foreign country in which you know few people, don’t speak the language, don’t have a job, and can be deported at any minute. And suppose half of your family is in another country and you must act quickly to save up and send money to bring them to you. I’m willing to bet that many students haven’t thought about this at all.

It has a pretty low reading level, which leads me to think the book is best suited for middle school, but it’s definitely appropriate and potentially engaging at the high school level. A few minor red flags are mentions of rape and prostitution, although neither acts are specifically stated. Unless you are a careful reader with background information and inference skills, you’ll miss the references. Some of the vocabulary is complex, making it not completely suitable for ELLs, but it would be an okay book for a strong (L3 – L4) reader.

Journey of the Sparrows is my twenty-seventh book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

An Island Far from Home by John Donahue

An Island Far from HomeReading level: 5.5
Lexile: 690
Genre: Historical fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

The twelve-year-old son of a Union army doctor killed during the fighting in Fredericksburg comes to understand the meaning of war and the fine line between friends and enemies when he begins corresponding with a young Confederate prisoner of war.

Sometimes I bring home really boring-looking YA books that are in the “free” pile at the library. It’s sort of like picking up a hitchhiker: it could be a very bad idea, but you also feel bad for the person and decide to give him/her a ride and do a good deed. Basically, adopting one of these books is a bargain. This one was a “meh” bargain in that it wasn’t terrible but kids probably won’t read it.

An Island Far from Home has a genuinely interesting premise: a kid communicates with an “enemy” kid on the other side of the war. The overall message is that we are all human and that war hurts everyone. It’s also just a sweet story of friendship. Unfortunately, it’s not very well-written and it’s not terribly engaging. It’s more suited for upper elementary and lower middle school. It’s also not very ELL-friendly with outdated vocabulary (from the Civil War) and regional dialects with strong accents.

A book talk could get students interested even if the book itself is a bit of a letdown. I’d begin by saying: imagine that the US is in the middle of a war with Canada (or another country), and a Canadian killed one of your family members. You have the opportunity to write a letter to a kid your age who is an enemy prisoner. Would you write that letter? Is it possible for you and this “enemy” to be friends?

All that said, I won’t get rid of this book just yet. It’s a solid addition to the historical fiction shelf if I wind up teaching middle school. It could be highlighted when learning about the civil war or when a reading challenge is about reading books with dorky covers.

An Island Far from Home is my twenty-sixth 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).