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?

Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady by Ellen Emerson White

voyage on the great titanicReading level: 5.4
Lexile: 1010
Series: Dear America
Genre: Historical fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Orphaned Margaret Ann looks forward to the day when she will have enough money to leave London to be reunited with her brother in America. She is given that opportunity when she becomes the companion to Mrs. Carstairs, a wealthy American returning to the States. Their voyage aboard the Titanic is a thrilling experience for Margaret until disaster strikes.

As I was going up, I adored the Dear America books. I remember consciously denying the fact that someone other than the diarist wrote these books, because I so badly wanted to believe that they were authentic diaries. Unfortunately, now that I’m all grown up, these books tend to bore me. However, Voyage on the Great Titanic had a great message at the end that I truly appreciated.

Our narrator Margaret is not entirely likable. She seems to cause trouble just because she can, but her love for her brother and later, for Robert, is clear, and I saw after some time that as she matures she begins to turn into a kind, caring young woman. Obviously, Margaret survives the sinking of the Titanic, and the author did a wonderful job portraying the trauma. Margaret asks herself over and over how she could live and so many other people could perish and if she should have acted differently and let someone take her place. She marvels at her fate that brought her into all the right situations to sail on the Titanic and survive. The fact that she never gets over this trauma is sad but realistic.

It seems like this Dear America book is one of the most popular simply because kids (and adults) continue to be fascinated by the Titanic. It was interesting (for a little while) to read about what the few days on the Titanic were like and how people responded to the tragedy as it was happening. Most of all, I appreciated how the reader learns of the inequity aboard the ship. The lower classes were prevented from reaching the life boats or even from reaching the top deck. In fact, Margaret notes that if she had been anything but first class, she may not have survived simply because of her class.

One goodreads reviewer noted how inappropriate some of the vocabulary is for Margaret to be using with her little education and lower class upbringing, not to mention inappropriate for the targeted age group. Just take a moment to compare the reading level to the lexile. Vocabulary alone prevents me from recommending this story to ELLs. I have faith that interested readers could power through the difficult words, however.

Voyage on the Great Titanic is my thirty-sixth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.


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.

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.

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.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

_206890SchEsperanza_0.tifReading level: 5.5
Lexile: 750
Genre: Historical fiction, realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Esperanza thought she’d always live with her family on their ranch in Mexico–she’d always have fancy dresses, a beautiful home, and servants. But a sudden tragedy forces Esperanza and Mama to flee to California during the Great Depression, and to settle in a camp for Mexican farm workers. Esperanza isn’t ready for the hard labor, financial struggles, or lack of acceptance she now faces. When their new life is threatened, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstances–Mama’s life, and her own, depend on it.

First and foremost, Esperanza Rising made me grateful for the privileged life that I have and appreciative of the work that farm laborers must do to feed so many of us. While this book takes place during the Great Depression, life isn’t easy for Mexican workers today, either.

Esperanza is an excellently-written character. I was upset at her for being selfish and spoiled, but you can’t help but forgive her because that’s the only life she’s known. Her transformation into a responsible young adult is beautiful, making me suck up my insecurities and worries, because, if Esperanza can make it, so can I. More than anything, this is a story about resiliency and hope.

Because the story is short and able to be read as a class novel or in book groups, I thought of a few ways to use it in the classroom:

  • students write about struggles they have faced and overcame either before or after reading
  • listen to the audiobook instead of or in conjunction with the printed book
  • use as background information about immigration
  • use as background information about wealth inequality in Mexico and/or the US
  • possibly a good fit for students (even upper middle through high school) who are fluent in Spanish but have limited English proficiency

It actually reminds me of a simpler version of The House on Mango Street.

It is geared to younger readers, upper elementary through lower middle school, and although the reading level is low, the concepts are deep if explored and taught. There are lots of Spanish words and phrases, but each one is immediately translated, so even if you have no Spanish background, you’ll be able to understand what is being said.

It is ELL-friendly for the most part, but students of all backgrounds must understand key vocabulary such as strike, land owner, and peasant.

The only issue I see is that the story is slow-moving at times. There is always something happening and Esperanza is always growing, but there isn’t always action. Seems like kiddos these days like the fast-paced stories, but with some help getting into Esperanza and even Miguel’s heads, students could be invested in these characters and their struggles.

Esperanza Rising is my seventeenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence

Lord of the Nutcracker MenReading level: 5.5
Lexile: 640
Genre: Historical fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Ten-year-old Johnny eagerly plays at war with the army of nutcracker soldiers his toymaker father whittles for him. He demolishes imaginary foes. But in 1914 Germany looms as the real enemy of Europe, and all too soon Johnny’s father is swept up in the war to end all wars. He proudly enlists with his British countrymen to fight at the front in France. The war, though, is nothing like what any soldier or person at home expected.

The letters that arrive from Johnny’s dad reveal the ugly realities of combat — and the soldiers he carves and encloses begin to bear its scars. Still, Johnny adds these soldiers to his armies of Huns, Tommies, and Frenchmen, engaging them in furious fights. But when these games seem to foretell his dad’s real battles, Johnny thinks he possesses godlike powers over his wooden men. He fears he controls his father’s fate, the lives of all the soldiers in no-man’s land, and the outcome of the war itself.

The cover of Lord of the Nutcracker Men gives you a pretty good idea about what the story will be about: a little boy, death, nutcracker men, war, Britain, and letters. There is a lot going on in this book, and it’s one of those that I’ve come to appreciate after I’ve finished it, even though it wasn’t entirely gripping as I was actually reading it. So yes, I was pretty bored sometimes, but that’s partially me not liking war stories.

Lawrence does an excellent job of communicating the horrors of war, specifically WWI. Through Johnny’s dad’s letters, we watch the dad transformation as he fights in the trenches. We also see Johnny growing up. When he first read about the horrors of war in his dad’s letters, he’d be excited and go play “war” with his wooden soldiers. As time passed, he began to understand that real people were suffering and dying. He also grew up as he took his education to heart and began to hate his aunt less and less.

The element of mystery is what kept me going: was Murdoch a ghost or not? Were the games Johnny played impacting of the actual war? There was just enough magical realism for both of these scenarios to be true.

The reading level is low, but there is a lot of sophisticated and out-dated vocabulary, making it not best suited for ELLs. I would recommend the book to kiddos who enjoy war books and/or historical fiction. It really is a powerful book, but it takes some perseverance because it’s not jam-packed with action. It’s more suited to middle schoolers because the main character is pretty young and the reading level is low, but it could easily be enjoyed by high schoolers, too.

Lord of the Nutcracker Men is my tenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox

The slave dancerReading level: 6.4
Lexile: 970
Genre: Historical fiction,
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Jessie Bollier often played his fife to earn a few pennies down by the New Orleans docks. One afternoon a sailor asked him to pipe a tune, and that evening Jessie was kidnapped and dumped aboard “The Moonlight,” a slave ship, where a hateful duty awaited him. He was to play music so the slaves could “dance” to keep their muscles strong, their bodies profitable. Jessie was sickened by the thought of taking part in the business of trading rum and tobacco for blacks and then selling the ones who survived the frightful sea voyage from Africa. But to the men of the ship a “slave dancer” was necessary to ensure their share of the profit. They did not heed the horrors that every day grew more vivid, more inescapable to Jessie. Yet, even after four months of fear, calculated torture, and hazardous sailing with a degraded crew, Jessie was to face a final horror that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

Ug, not a good time. I found The Slave Dancer to be quite boring. I stuck it out ’til the end in hopes that I would get into it, but that never happened. 90% of the setting is on the ship where very little happens that I cared about. I just couldn’t get into Jesse’s character or the other men on the ship.

Since I thought it was dull, students may think the same. I would recommend the book to students who like pirates and historical fiction. The book got generally good reviews, though, so maybe there’s something to this book that I missed.

The lexile is fairly high, and the vocabulary is pretty sophisticated, so it’s not particularly ELL-friendly. It’s better suited to middle schoolers, but I could see high schoolers being appropriately challenged with it, too.

The n-word is used a few times, but it’s not excessive. While it’s unpleasant to hear or read that word, the men who use it are juxtaposed by Jesse who knows that slavery is horrible and morally wrong. There are some instances of the sailors drinking alcohol, but those are the only two parts that might be inappropriate.

The Slave Dancer is my eighth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy

the apothecaryReading level: 5 (??)
Lexile: 740
Series: The Apothecary book 1
Genre: historical fiction, adventure
ELL-Friendly: Yes (mostly)
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

It’s 1952 and the Scott family has just moved from Los Angeles to London. Here, fourteen-year-old Janie meets a mysterious apothecary and his son, Benjamin Burrows—a fascinating boy who’s not afraid to stand up to authority and dreams of becoming a spy. When Benjamin’s father is kidnapped, Janie and Benjamin must uncover the secrets of the apothecary’s sacred book, the Pharmacopoeia, in order to find him, all while keeping it out of the hands of their enemies—Russian spies in possession of nuclear weapons. Discovering and testing potions they never believed could exist, Janie and Benjamin embark on a dangerous race to save the apothecary and prevent impending disaster.

This book was recommended to me by my fabulous cooperating teacher, and I loved it. Five minutes have passed since I finished it, and I’ve already begun the sequel.

Being a history lover, I was naturally intrigued by the setting, both the location (London, at least for a while) and the time period (1955). The Apothecary is a perfect blend of believable historical fiction with some magic thrown in there. I was completely drawn into the world Meloy had created, not to mention the lovely characters. Janie and Benjamin (and their parents) were a breath of fresh air after the maddening characters in the Divergent series that I just finished. Janie is intelligent, careful, bold, brave, and shy all at once while Benjamin is much the same with some rebellious qualities. Oh, and Pip. I wasn’t sure about him at first, but he’s sure adorable, if not a stereotypical Dickens-esque pickpocket. I’m curious to see what role he will have, if any, in The Apprentices (the sequel).

The romance is adorable and beautifully done. It isn’t soppy or inappropriate, and you can’t help but root for them. The real test of Benjamen’s love is when he has to say goodbye. Oh man, that ending…

It could find a place in both an English or social studies classroom, and it would be an excellent companion while studying WWII or the Red Scare. It’s got too much mysticism to be read as a class text for the purpose of studying history, but it would be an excellent way to get kids interested in history by doing a booktalk or using it in a book club. Something to point out, though, is that Germans, Russians, Japanese are cast in a negative light by the Americans and English, as they were at this time period. To students, I might explain why there was such negative sentiment towards these groups of people but that it’s never good to generalize or stereotype. In fact, the Russian spy and his son were an example of people trying to do “good” while so many people assumed they were evil simply because of their heritage.

Some of the beauty of this book comes from the message of peace in a time when humans have created weapons to destroy each other, Mutually Assured Destruction. The characters believe so strongly that the world can be saved from such weapons that they risk their lives so that everyone else may live. It’s an interesting look back at history and the Cold War as well as the issues we continue to face as countries around the world hold (or are suspected to hold) nuclear weapons.

The Apothecary isn’t particularly ELL-friendly because there are names in different languages as well as a pretty fantastic vocabulary, which helps add to the book’s magic. I think it would be an acceptable challenge to advanced or transitional ELLs as well as native English speakers. I disagree with the reading level being 5th grade because the vocabulary is rather complex throughout. I’d estimate it being at a 7th or 8th grade level, if not 9th.

I read somewhere that the book is written for middle schoolers, but I could see high schoolers getting into it too. It wasn’t childish or too complex for younger readers to understand.

The book can certainly stand alone, but there are so many questions left unanswered, and I desperately want to see Janie and Benjamen be reunited, although it’s implied at the end of the book that they will see each other again, although we’re unsure of the circumstances under which they will meet.

Oh, and the illustrations are beautiful.

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