A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

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

Goodreads summary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Froi of the Exiles by Melina Marchetta

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

Goodreads summary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan

Boy Meets BoyReading level: 6.3
Lexile: 730
Genre: Romance, LGBT
ELL-Friendly: Mostly
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

This is the story of Paul, a sophomore at a high school like no other: The cheerleaders ride Harleys, the homecoming queen used to be a guy named Daryl (she now prefers Infinite Darlene and is also the star quarterback), and the gay-straight alliance was formed to help the straight kids learn how to dance.

When Paul meets Noah, he thinks he’s found the one his heart is made for. Until he blows it. The school bookie says the odds are 12-to-1 against him getting Noah back, but Paul’s not giving up without playing his love really loud. His best friend Joni might be drifting away, his other best friend Tony might be dealing with ultra-religious parents, and his ex-boyfriend Kyle might not be going away anytime soon, but sometimes everything needs to fall apart before it can really fit together right.

David Levithan is a bit of a literary hero to me because he writes such fabulous gay characters. But that’s also because my experience with LGBT literature is fairly minimal. In any case, I read Boy Meets Boy because I love the author, even though Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was a bit of a bust for me. Boy Meets Boy is, in a lot of ways, a typical romance story. That part I didn’t care for very much because I’m not one for the romance genre as a whole. But what Boy Meets Boy does differently and spectacularly is create “a high school like no other.”

This story makes me wonder what our schools could be like if kids weren’t afraid to come out as gay to their friends, community, and family. With the freedom to do this, Levithan opens all sorts of doors, like straight boys having crushes on manly-quarterbacks-turned-girls and characters not tip-toeing around the “is he gay?” question and moving straight into business.

To throw a wrench into this little utopia, Paul’s friend Tony’s parents try to make him not gay anymore, which is something that happens all the time over here in the real world. Tony teaches us that even when parents try to change something about their child, it is out of love, even if it hurts. At least in this circumstance.

I would recommend this book to students who enjoy romance, whether or not they’re gay. It’s just a fun story about love and more importantly about friendship. What I took away from the story wasn’t the love between Paul and Noah but the friendship between Paul and all his friends and family. I might also recommend it to students who read books not just for the plot but for the writing. (Do those students even exist?) Levithan’s prose flows like poetry and is half the fun of reading his stories.

It’s more of a high school book because the characters are in high school, but it’s fine for upper middle school. I also don’t recall anything inappropriate unless parents think that any sort of gay content is inappropriate.

Finally, it is a coming-of-age story as Paul tries to figure out himself and his loves and his friends. These subjects relate to all adolescents, because LGBT books are for everyone.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Aristotle and DanteReading level: 5.0 (ish)
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

Like Eleanor and Park, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe has a lot of hype surrounding it, but it lived up to every ounce of that hype. It is as complex and stunningly beautiful as the book cover, and I wish it never had to end. It was that kind of book.

This story has a lot of levels. First, there is deep friendship between the two boys. Then there’s the sexuality and romance. Add to that Ari’s coming of age a Mexican-American confused about identity and angry about an absent brother wrapped together in prose that feels like poetry. It’s not a book driven by plot. Rather, it’s driven by Ari moving forward with his life and plodding through his thoughts to discover himself in all his teenage boyness.

I would recommend this book to more mature readers who enjoy beautiful, deep stories and don’t need to be entertained by a fast-moving plot. Readers must be willing to open their hearts to these characters and to be gentle and nonjudgmental, as you would treat a friend. I might also recommend it to a boy searching for his identity, whether gay or not, but girls could easily enjoy this story, too. It’s definitely not boy-exclusive.

I adore Dante and Aristotle, of course, but I also love each of their parents. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read a book with such realistic and fantastic parents. So often in YA lit, parents are either perfect or so flawed that you really can’t forgive them. These parents are flawed and forgivable and generally wonderful. I’ve spent way too long on this paragraph and have written so little, so I’ll move on…

I would give it a PG-13 sticker due to language and brief discussions of boy body parts and sex stuff. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for teenage boys to be thinking about, and nothing more graphic than kissing happens, but it’s still there.

Because the characters are in high school and the writing moves slowly, I would recommend it to high schoolers over middle schoolers. As a middle schooler, I was not about to slow down and savor a character or beautiful prose, and that is half the story! But a more mature middle schooler might just fall in love with the story…

Pick up Aristotle and Dante when you’re feeling introspective and when you’re not in a hurry. A nice cup of tea would go nicely.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and ParkReading level: 5.5 ish
Genre: Romance
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Two misfits.
One extraordinary love.

Eleanor… Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough…Eleanor.

Park… He knows she’ll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There’s a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises…Park.

Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Everything about reading Eleanor & Park made me nervous. I tend to dislike romance stories to begin with, but mostly this book had a lot to live up to from its multiple awards to its apparently incredible author. I’m please to say that I have no regrets. Eleanor & Park is a gorgeous book through and through.

Just from reading the above Goodreads summary, you can get a sense of the poetic language. For most of the story, the plot is slow moving, the author focusing on small moments and examining them up close. She alternates perspectives but unlike Flipped (that’s the only example I can think of right now), it’s not the same scene told twice. Eleanor and Park take up where the other leaves off.

The romance is sweet, of course. Looking back, though, what I appreciated the most is the juxtaposition of Eleanor and Park’s families. Park has it all and takes it all for granted. Eleanor has no money and a struggling family and is very cognizant of how her background is different from Park’s. I can only hope that kids (or adults for that matter) who read this book take a moment to think about what they have and to be thankful for it, no matter how much or little. Throughout the story, Eleanor’s classmates bully her because she’s different, but perhaps if they knew how she lived and with whom, they would have treated her with respect. Here is another reminder to not judge anyone harshly because everybody is fighting their own battles.

Tina is one of those bullies (or so we’re led to believe), and although she never seems like a kind, good person, she comes around to Eleanor in the end. It’s always heartwarming when the bully makes a change for the better. Doing something kind is never wasted.

Because this book has won so many YA awards, I was surprised at the language. There’s a lot of swearing and some crass sexual phrases as well. For those reasons, I’d put a rated-R sticker on my book if I were to put it in my classroom library. It’s definitely geared more towards high school because of language and the age and situations of our characters, so I might keep it off the middle school shelf unless it’s 8th grade.

I realize now that I was so wrapped up in the book that I forgot to think about its suitability for ELLs. Now that the book is back at the library, I can’t go back and look, but my memory says it’s not ELL-friendly for the most part. It has a lot of references to bands and comics from the ’70s. While that may seem like a small detail, these conversations make up the bulk of Eleanor and Park’s conversations at the beginning of the story.

I’ve been asked if Eleanor & Park is worth reading and if it lives up to the hype. I would say yes. It’s not a book that will necessarily knock your socks off, but you’ll find yourself closing the book for a second and thinking, “Wow.” Read it slowly and savor it.

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

Finnikin of the RockReading level: 5.4
Lexile: 820
Series: Lumatere Chronicles book 1
Genre: Fantasy
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

At the age of nine, Finnikin is warned by the gods that he must sacrifice a pound of flesh to save his kingdom. He stands on the rock of the three wonders with his friend Prince Balthazar and Balthazar’s cousin, Lucian, and together they mix their blood to safeguard Lumatere.

But all safety is shattered during the five days of the unspeakable, when the king and queen and their children are brutally murdered in the palace. An impostor seizes the throne, a curse binds all who remain inside Lumatere’s walls, and those who escape are left to roam the land as exiles, dying by the thousands in fever camps.

Ten years later, Finnikin is summoned to another rock–to meet Evanjalin, a young novice with a startling claim: Balthazar, heir to the throne of Lumatere, is alive. This arrogant young woman claims she’ll lead Finnikin and his mentor, Sir Topher, to the prince. Instead, her leadership points them perilously toward home. Does Finnikin dare believe that Lumatere might one day rise united? Evanjalin is not what she seems, and the startling truth will test Finnikin’s faith not only in her but in all he knows to be true about himself and his destiny.

I am not the first to be impressed by this book, and I hope to do it justice with this review. This is one of those books where I had the feeling I was in the presence of something great but didn’t quite know for sure until about the middle and I realized, wow, this is pretty excellent. Not to mention the giant plot twist. In particular (and I am not the first to say this, either), the world-building is fantastic. It compares to The Lord of the Rings in that way, minus unnecessary details and complexities.

I struggled to get into the characters, but now that the first book is over, Finnikin and Evanjalin are sticking with me. Finnikin of the Rock focuses less on character development for a majority of the story and more on the struggles of the people of Lumatere. But through that shared struggle and how each person deals with it, we come to learn more about each character, little by little. This is one of those stories that legitimately needs a sequel or two to build on the characters. I’m going to be really upset if Finnikin and Evanjalin are not highlighted in the books to come.

Most importantly, these characters are so real. They’re not perfect and don’t always make good decisions. They are inconsistent with their strengths and falter when heroes in fairy tales would not. This is fantasy at its finest because it could almost, almost be real. Or so I’d like to think.

There are a few school-inappropriate parts that include Froi attempting to rape Evanjalin, Finnikin going to a whore, and brief foul language. These first two “issues” aren’t graphic and are in fact pretty subtle. We actually come to like Froi, and Evanjalin does too, although she never forgives him. But even though he almost commits one of the worst crimes a person can do to another, we can’t help but see the better side of Froi as he sees the best in himself.

I would recommend Finnikin of the Rock to fans of fantasy, particularly those who enjoy The Lord of the Rings or books like The False Prince/fantasy books involving royalty.

Because the lexile is high and names of people and places are complicated, it’s not very ELL friendly. The interest level is actually 9th grade, but I think it would be fine for upper middle school. I’d put a pg-13 sticker on it for the near rape of Evanjalin, those pesky whores stepping into the picture, language, and general violence. But again, there’s nothing graphic that might outrage anybody. The closest I got to being offended was the near-forgiveness of Froi for his attempted rape.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Nick and NorahReading level: 7.1
Lexile: 1020
Genre: Romance
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: high school

Scholastic’s summary:

It all starts when Nick asks Norah to be his girlfriend for five minutes. He only needs five minutes to avoid his ex-girlfriend, who’ s just walked in to his band’ s show. With a new guy. And then, with one kiss, Nick and Norah are off on an adventure set against the backdrop of New York City— and smack in the middle of all the joy, anxiety, confusion, and excitement of a first date.

This he said/she said romance is a sexy, funny roller coaster of a story about one date over one very long night, with two teenagers, both recovering from broken hearts, who are just trying to figure out who they want to be— and where the next great band is playing.

I’ve been meaning to read Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist for a few years, beginning when I discovered the amazing David Levithan. I had really high hopes but was left fairly disappointed. But, like I said with Let It Snow, teen romance isn’t really my thing, but it might be your thing, so take my opinions with a grain of salt.

The story is told through alternating viewpoints, which is pulled off beautifully with the audiobook I listened to. The narration is excellent. Another plus is that the voices of these two teenagers are incredibly realistic. Nick and Norah are heartbroken, not heartbroken, confused, heartbroken again, scared, adventurous, confused some more… Now that I am not a teenager and do not wish to relive that experience ever again, I wasn’t super intrigued by these characters. Because there isn’t a whole lot of action and most of the story is the inner thoughts of each character, the teenage introspection got to be a bit much. That said, the ultimate message is to take a leap of faith because life is scary, but you can’t live scared. But also don’t be stupid, but if you are (because you will make stupid decisions), learn from them and grow.

I will regretfully not be putting this book in my classroom library unless I maybe teach high school. This book has the most f-bombs (among other choice swear words) than any other book I can recall. And there’s some sort-of-sex scenes, which isn’t super graphic but is enough to potentially make parents uncomfortable/outraged. But, like I said, all this can be justified by the very teenage-ness of the whole book, and teenagers need books they can connect to. However, because of the excessive language and “adult content,” I would but a “rated R” sticker on it if it goes into the classroom at all. It might also wind up being one of those books that I reserve for a certain student who I feel would “get” it – maybe a reluctant teen reader with a broken heart.

It’s not particularly ELL-friendly because of the high lexile, a pretty sophisticated vocab, and references to pop culture and music. I can’t help but think that if readers know the major American curse words, they’re halfway to understanding all the words in the story. But I exaggerate…

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