The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

city of emberReading level: 5.1
Lexile: 680
Series: Book of Ember, book 1
Genre: Dystopian
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Many hundreds of years ago, the city of Ember was created by the Builders to contain everything needed for human survival. It worked…but now the storerooms are almost out of food, crops are blighted, corruption is spreading through the city and worst of all—the lights are failing. Soon Ember could be engulfed by darkness….

But when two children, Lina and Doon, discover fragments of an ancient parchment, they begin to wonder if there could be a way out of Ember. Can they decipher the words from long ago and find a new future for everyone? Will the people of Ember listen to them?

Our main characters Lina and Doon live in a less-than-ideal city (their whole world) where there is no sun, and all light comes from electricity. Apparently there is no sky, and the city if self-contained while everything beyond the lighted areas are unknown. We learn little bits and pieces about how Ember is different from where we live today, and my favorite part of the book was the world building because it’s some of the few details the author lets us figure out by ourselves.

The City of Ember is similar to Divergent where the outside is unknown but we know there’s something out there that may or may not be better. The City of Ember is also similar to The Giver where all kids are assigned a job to contribute to the small, artificial society. Ember is less dark (no pun intended) and more juvenile in comparison but it has the same sense of mystery and complexities of how the city functions.

There’s nothing particularly exceptional about Lina and Doon, but as they risk more and more to find a way out of Ember, they make themselves exceptional. What I don’t like about them is that Doon overcomes his dislike of Lina very quickly while Lina gets over the death of a certain family member I will not name (spoilers…) too quickly to be realistic. In essence, the characters have likeable traits but the way they interact with each other and form relationships is nothing memorable or touching.

I can definitely see kids liking this book. It’s a quick, easy, intriguing read, but it is for the younger audiences of upper elementary to lower middle school. The simplicity of the plot and writing caused me to rate it 3 out of 5 stars, and I am left feeling pretty “meh” about the whole experience. The City of Ember ends on a significant cliffhanger, but my lack of enthusiasm about this book and goodreads reviewers’ falling ratings of all following books lead me to not pursue the rest of the series.

This book could be pretty easy to talk up to boys and girls because the premise really is interesting if not executed in an elegant manner (which is okay because it’s written for kids). It’s ELL-friendly, and I would recommend it to young or struggling readers whose reading levels aren’t high enough to tackle other popular dystopian novels (Divergent, for example).

Sky Jumpers by Peggy Eddleman

Sky JumpersReading level: 5th ish?
Series: Sky Jumpers book 1
Genre: Dystopian, science fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

12-year-old Hope lives in White Rock, a town struggling to recover from the green bombs of World War III. The bombs destroyed almost everything that came before, so the skill that matters most in White Rock—sometimes it feels like the only thing that matters—is the ability to invent so that the world can regain some of what it’s lost.

But Hope is terrible at inventing and would much rather sneak off to cliff dive into the Bomb’s Breath—the deadly band of air that covers the crater the town lives in—than fail at yet another invention.

When bandits discover that White Rock has invented priceless antibiotics, they invade. The town must choose whether to hand over the medicine and die from disease in the coming months or to die fighting the bandits now. Hope and her friends, Aaren and Brock, might be the only ones who can escape through the Bomb’s Breath and make the dangerous trek over the snow-covered mountain to get help.

Sky Jumpers is a pretty great middle level, dystopian story. The premise and setting is interesting right off the bat: post-WWIII, deadly Bomb’s Breath, few modern inventions, a secluded community… I enjoyed learning about the history and issues facing White Rock, although I would have liked to have seen more mystery aside from Brock’s “mysterious” background…which we learn about in no time at all.

Hope, our narrator, is simply amazing – brave, smart, and a great friend. I really enjoyed her voice. I liked the end, especially, where she (being 12) realizes that her strengths may not lie with inventing but in something else – something her society tends to overlook. This theme spoke loud and clear to me as I struggle to find the “right” path and career moves now that I’m done with school and student teaching. More than anything in this story, Hope’s message will stick with me, and it would do well for students to think about it as well.

Sky Jumpers is the first in a series that is currently in the works. The first book ends with enough finality that I didn’t feel I needed to rush off and read the sequel, but there are enough unknowns to keep me interested in the rest of Hope’s story.

Unfortunately I was a bit bored with parts of the book, leading me to rate it 3/5 stars on goodreads. I felt pretty “meh” about a good chunk of the action and wanted more to happen and more mystery to keep me wondering. That aside, the book has gotten excellent reviews from many readers, so snatch this book up if you have a chance.

It’s definitely a middle level book with the main character being 12 and the simplicity of the plot. It’s ELL-friendly if students know some key words such as “bomb,” “bandit,” and “invention.” The reading level is my best guess because the book is not on record with Scholastic, and I don’t have the hard copy of the book in front of me to run through Word to get the approximate reading level.

Sky Jumpers is my ninth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Allegiant – Veronica Roth

AllegiantReading level: 9 (ish)
Lexile: 700 (ish)
Series: The Divergent series book 3
Genre: dystopian
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

The faction-based society that Tris Prior once believed in is shattered—fractured by violence and power struggles and scarred by loss and betrayal. So when offered a chance to explore the world past the limits she’s known, Tris is ready. Perhaps beyond the fence, she and Tobias will find a simple new life together, free from complicated lies, tangled loyalties, and painful memories.

But Tris’s new reality is even more alarming than the one she left behind. Old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless. Explosive new truths change the hearts of those she loves. And once again, Tris must battle to comprehend the complexities of human nature—and of herself—while facing impossible choices about courage, allegiance, sacrifice, and love.

I feel like I should get a t-shirt that says, “I survived the Divergent series.” What a ride it has been. I actually liked this book the least because I was so upset with both Tris and Tobias; they were so mean to each other. More on that later. It was also just horribly depressing. I hoped maybe all the death would have ended with Insurgent, but it just got worse. So much worse.

I wrote “ish” next to the grade level and lexile because those numbers aren’t available on Scholastic since the book is still relatively new and has not been leveled. I determined the rough numbers by taking a look at the two books that came before Allegiant.

I did NOT see the plot twists coming. In a way, it was kind of a d’oh moment, like in first two Maze Runner books, but it was cleverly disguised until Roth was ready to reveal it. I’m still reeling from the awesomeness of how the plot unfolded throughout the series. When I have the courage, I’ll re-read it all and look for hints.

I felt my dislike for Tris coming on during Insurgent, and I really did try to like her more in Allegiant, but she was so mean and rude. Always. Without having to be. It got to the point where I didn’t even enjoy her character. Tobias got on my nerves a bit too. But with him, and through reading his narration, we saw how conflicted he was, how he hated parts of him that loved killing and hurting, and how weak he really was. At least I felt sorry for him. He tried harder (in my opinion) to keep his relationship with Tris alive where Tris burned bridges everywhere she went. Their fighting was so disheartening. I have to say, though, that my emotions were expertly played with, and I was rooting for both of them by the end.

You know who I really liked? Christina. I loved the way she recovered from her losses, forgave those who hurt her most, and took care of Tobias. If I were to take any cues about how to live my life, I would take them from her.

You know who else I was also kind of rooting for and feel guilty for admitting it? Peter. He was really coming around. His actions in Divergent can never be excused, but there was definite hope for him throughout Allegiant. I legitimately felt sorry for the guy at the end.

I was pleased to find three gay characters in this series: Lynn (revealed in Insurgent as her last breath), and Amar and George. It wasn’t a large part of the story, and it was just…normal. Way to spread acceptance, Ms. Roth.

Okay, so the ending. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it. That said, one of my students told me what happens at the end, so I mentally prepared myself about a week in advance before I actually reached it. I didn’t cry my eyes out like I did with The Fault in Our Stars or The Book Thief, probably because I was as ready as I could have been. The character’s death was also so valiant that it was just…worth it. That last action redeemed this character to me, just in the nick of time. I don’t think it could have ended any other way.

It’s ELL-friendly although the reading level is fairly high. A possible issue I see parents being upset about is the one scene where Tris and Tobias sleep with their clothes off, but it’s nothing explicit. And that’s exactly what they do: sleep. Literally.

Honestly, I’m glad the series was done. It was a rough ride, but only because I was so invested in these great pieces of literature that contained so much loss and destruction. I feel like I’ve lost some friends along the way but that some of them, the ones who survived, are out there still, advocating for a humane world.

The Death Cure – James Dashner

the death cureReading level: 5
Series: The Maze Runner Book 3
Genre: Dystopian
ELL-Friendly: Yes (mostly)
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Thomas knows that Wicked can’t be trusted, but they say the time for lies is over, that they’ve collected all they can from the Trials and now must rely on the Gladers, with full memories restored, to help them with their ultimate mission. It’s up to the Gladers to complete the blueprint for the cure to the Flare with a final voluntary test.

What Wicked doesn’t know is that something’s happened that no Trial or Variable could have foreseen. Thomas has remembered far more than they think. And he knows that he can’t believe a word of what Wicked says.

Well this series was basically a bust for me. The Maze Runner was pretty good, but it all went downhill from there. I’m not even sure why I’m making a blog post because I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been mentioned in any of the other posts regarding the series.

I will, however, complain a little bit. I said in my post about The Scorch Trials that the only reason I read the final book in the trilogy was because I wanted answers. Those answers didn’t come. For example, I still know very little about WICKED, Thomas’ past, and how the rest of the humans were coping with the state of the world. Bah.

At the end, the chancellor of WICKED says “WICKED is good.” And obviously it ISN’T if it’s basically torturing people WHEN THERE WAS A FAIL-SAFE ALTERNATIVE THE WHOLE TIME.

I kept waiting for Brenda to have a purpose. Aaaand she didn’t.

But, the one part that did get me right in the feels was the death of Newt. I had come to rather like this character (which is difficult seeing as most characters were so flat), but I admit that a great deal of my interest in this character came from his accent, which the narrator of the audiobook really performed well.

I’m glad it’s over. Thoughts?

The Scorch Trials – James Dashner

scorch trialsReading level: 5
Series: The Maze Runner Book 2
Genre: Dystopian
ELL-Friendly: Yes (mostly)
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Burned by sun flares and baked by a new, brutal climate, the earth is a wasteland. Government has disintegrated—and with it, order—and now Cranks, people covered in festering wounds and driven to murderous insanity by the infectious disease known as the Flare, roam the crumbling cities hunting for their next victim . . . and meal.

The Gladers are far from finished with running. Instead of freedom, they find themselves faced with another trial. They must cross the Scorch, the most burned-out section of the world, and arrive at a safe haven in two weeks. And WICKED has made sure to adjust the variables and stack the odds against them.

I wasn’t too terribly impressed by the first book of the series: The Maze Runner. The premise is very interesting, but I remember it being sort of slow. It has all the makings of being a suspenseful novel, but I feel like the excitement was squashed by dragging the story out too much (which is precisely what happened in The Scorch Trials). However, I then read the prequil, The Kill Order (which I thought was pretty lousy), and am on to reading the third book of the series after having finished The Scorch Trials. What keeps me going? I want answers. Plain and simple. I want to know what the heck is up with WICKED, how these “trials” will do anything to help the human race, and what the plan was all along.

After reading through some goodreads comments, I am better able to pinpoint something I really didn’t like about the first two books – Thomas. He’s just a blah character. Sorry, buddy, but I just don’t care about you. 😦

I have no idea what point Brenda’s character had. The whole romantic thing she had with Thomas seemed not only creepy and out of nowhere but just unnecessary to the plot line. I think Dashner was trying to create a love triangle, maybe? Anyway, it didn’t work. Too bad his female characters (all two of them) are either betrayers or crazy lovers.

There are creatively-used vocabulary (crank, shuck), which may be difficult for ELLs, but if they’ve gotten through The Maze Runner, then this book will be easier.

While I do recommend this book primarily for middle school, it’s also okay for high school, except the reading level is fairly low. I also think this series has the potential to really grip young readers, especially boys. Not being a middle school boy myself, I’m unable to confirm this statement.

Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins

MockingjayReading level: 7
Series: The Hunger Games series book 3
Genre: Dystopian
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Katniss Everdeen, girl on fire, has survived, even though her home has been destroyed. Gale has escaped. Katniss’s family is safe. Peeta has been captured by the Capitol. District 13 really does exist. There are rebels. There are new leaders. A revolution is unfolding.

It is by design that Katniss was rescued from the arena in the cruel and haunting Quarter Quell, and it is by design that she has long been part of the revolution without knowing it. District 13 has come out of the shadows and is plotting to overthrow the Capitol. Everyone, it seems, has had a hand in the carefully laid plans–except Katniss.

The success of the rebellion hinges on Katniss’s willingness to be a pawn, to accept responsibility for countless lives, and to change the course of the future of Panem. To do this, she must put aside her feelings of anger and distrust. She must become the rebels’ Mockingjay–no matter what the personal cost.

Let’s start with the good: Katniss clearly struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and is heavily impacted by the death and destruction caused in her wake. She goes a little crazy at times, and it is hard to watch her deteriorate and change from the level-headed (if not confused) and determined girl to the Katniss she develops into as a result of being in two Hunger Games and watching thousands of people die, which is incredibly realistic. The most amazing part is that, despite the strength of President Coin and the Capitol, Katniss is never a pawn – at least not completely. She becomes the Mockingjay because the government of District 13 wants her to, but she does so on her terms. She makes up the rules as she goes and always acts according to her heart and head. She is never without agency, which could have been easily stripped from her.

I also loved the further development of characters such as Haymitch, Prim, Joanna, and Finnick. Even though Haymitch and Katniss never got along well, I think Haymitch loved her at least a little. I was a bit upset, though, that Katniss didn’t mourn Finnick’s death more than she did. He’s a fascinating character who we don’t really understand until reaching this book.

The bad: It was difficult having Katniss so desperate and weak for a majority of the book. Mockingjay in general is very dark, more so than the other two. It deals with the heavy subjects of morality, fault, drug abuse, and mental illness more than the other books (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) which were more about staying alive and being with those you love. Basically, I just didn’t think it was very interesting. The epilogue wasn’t as terrible as the one in Harry Potter, but it would have made me facepalm if I hadn’t been listening to the audiobook while driving.

Mockingjay reminds us that there is no limit to the atrocities humans can impart on each other. History can always repeat itself.

As far as teen romances go, it was interesting that Collins made loveable, loyal Peeta into sort of a monster. It was so hard to take in this dramatic change of the boy with the bread (there’s a soft spot for him in all our hearts, admit it). Although he and Katniss do reach a sort of happily ever after, it’s not perfect, and they are both forever damaged, which is, again, quite realistic.

I’d still recommend Mockingjay for middle and high school even though the subject matter seems to stray a bit from YA to more adult issues (PTSD, drug abuse…). Despite Haymitch’s continued alcohol abuse and the morphling abuse of Katniss and Joanna, I don’t think it’s inappropriate for young students because it’s quite clear that substance abuse does terrible things to people.

Lastly, I’m interested how the Mockingjay movie will turn out with Peeta no longer being loveable and Katniss no longer being very sane.

Free Four: Tobias Tells the Story – Veronica Roth

Free FourReading level: 5.2
Series: Divergent series book 1.5
Genre: Dystopian, romance
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Here’s the internal monologue of what happened when this book became available for download from the library (I was on a long waiting list): YES! But first I will work out and take a shower and eat breakfast. …but let’s download it just to be sure it works. …and let’s turn on the Kindle to make sure it downloaded. Eh, let’s just read the first few pages. Oh, it’s so short, let’s just keep going. Okay, done.

In this short story, Four/Tobias narrates the knife-throwing scene, and it reveals a softer side to his character as well as his personal problems with Dauntless. I learned that Tobias has perhaps a softer heart than I once thought (“My thoughts skip back to the night before, how touching her sent warmth into my hand and through the rest of me, though I was frozen with fear.”) and that he already has reservations about supporting his new faction. I loved reading his thoughts because we don’t get any of that in the series that’s narrated by Tris.

I wouldn’t go out of your way to buy it for the classroom because it’s nothing spectacular (although I did really enjoy it), and the series can do without this addendum. Fans of the Divergent series will probably read it, though, if it’s around.

Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins

Catching_fireReading level: 7
Series: The Hunger Games series book 2
Genre: Dystopian
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

First of all, re-reading Catching Fire made me appreciate Katniss and Peeta as characters all the more. I feel like I know and appreciate them now that I’ve taken my time to get through the series again. Now there is no doubt that Peeta is in love with Katniss and would sacrifice himself for her, because he has more faith in her than she has in herself. I’m confused, though, why he loves her so incredibly much. The first time they have any real contact is in the Hunger Games the previous year, and half of what they said and did was staged, while another chunk was them fighting. Anyway…

Katniss just keeps on getting increasingly complex, but in a painfully realistic way. Although she struggles with how she feels about Peeta, she really does love and respect him, even if she’s not in love with him or even Gale. Her determination to keep Peeta alive shows us this. It’s terribly painful as they’re in the Quarter Quell and are trying their best to keep each other alive at the expense of themselves.

Catching Fire also truly begins to show us how evil the Capitol is. We don’t hear much from President Snow or other important figures. Most of what we know is speculation about how the Capitol operates, which makes the whole government seem even more dangerous. Only a truly evil person (or government) could force loved ones, children, the elderly, and the sick to fight against each other, only to cause the victors to go insane, drown the memories in alcohol, or take drugs to forget. Suzanne Collins brilliantly creates such a heinous entity without showing much about it.

Fan girls around the world are drooling over Finnick Odair. Like Katniss, I didn’t really like him (or Johanna Mason) to begin with. He is an interesting character because he is definitely not what he appears: an attention-loving, womanizing, self-loving man. In this book alone we learn that who he really loves, what he’s willing to risk, and that he is trustworthy, never mind that whole “sugar cube” bit at the beginning that was completely and utterly flirtatious in a rather disgusting way. Johanna is even redeemed by her keeping Katniss and Peeta alive even though she clearly doesn’t like Katniss one bit.

And poor Gale. He never stood a chance.

See the post about The Hunger Games for a discussion of appropriateness for schools and English language learners. I could say the same things about Catching Fire as I did The Hunger Games, except that this text is less violent than its prequel.

Edit: I ended this post feeling as though it was severely lacking. That is, I found myself unable to say many critical, smart comments. Now that I’ve had a few days to think about it, I believe that part of the problem was that this book is much more focused on the love triangle and confused emotions, which is pretty lackluster and typical of YA fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I really really really loved this book. Katniss just isn’t quite as enjoyable or tough. Or, if she is, it’s countered by her confusion about love. And as much as I adore Peeta, there isn’t much substance to him. He’s fighting to keep alive a girl he hardly knows; that’s about all we know about him. Oh, and he’s good at public speaking. I still feel for Peeta because he loves Katniss so much, but all he gets in return is confusion and sometimes hostility. I think that my 5-star rating of Catching Fire and my general love of it comes from the real way that Katniss is portrayed along with our growing knowledge of the Capitol despite the love triangle aspect, which gets us nowhere and is, to me, rather annoying.

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.

Insurgent – Veronica Roth

InsurgentReading level: 5.4
Series: Divergent series book 2
Genre: Dystopian, romance
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

I don’t even…where to begin…this book…


In no other book have I wanted the couple to be together so badly as in Insurgent. The romance was perfectly written, I think. As much as I was frustrated when Tris and Tobias had fights and I was afraid that they would split up, I appreciate how realistic the situation was. I love how each Tris and Tobias value honesty and how frustrated they get at each other while loving each other the entire time. The pre-execution Tris is a perfect example of Toni Morrison’s quote in Song of Solomon, “He can’t value you more than you value yourself.” I didn’t really understand what Tobias meant when he said he and Tris would be through if she kept throwing her life away until I recalled this quote. Only when she realized her life was worth living did she and Tobias get back on the same page. Beautiful.

The downside to my being so obsessed with Tris and Tobias’ relationship is that I focused more on them than on what they were fighting against sometimes. What can I say, they stole my heart. Or maybe just Tobias…

At the end of Divergent, Tris shoots and kills her friend Will. She spends the entirety of Insurgent being haunted by her decision and action, despite Will having been under a simulation and the fact that he would have certainly killed Tris had she not killed him first. This situation is in direct contrast to that of Ender’s Game when Ender kills a whole slew of people (and buggers) but doesn’t really beat himself up too badly, and everybody excuses him. Tris makes no excuses and always holds herself accountable.

But then one may counter that Tobias is a killing machine. And he sort of is. He reminds me of Gale from The Hunger Games series, where he’s more radical in needing to do what is “necessary” to dispose of the societal evil. In case you haven’t guessed, I love the character of Tobias, minus his willingness to kill. He’s the right amount of perfect and flawed, scared and brave, loving and hard-skinned.

Reasons to keep this off classroom shelves include: too much violence and excessive kissing. I don’t think either was too extreme, but if parents have an issue with The Hunger Games series, they’ll have an issue with this series too, probably – which would be a real shame because it’s SO GOOD.

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