Wonder by R.J. Palacio

WonderReading level: 5.0
Lexile: 790
Genre: realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes (mostly)
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?

Wonder was one of the books that all kids wanted to read when I student taught 6th grade. One student in particular read it over and over. It was a natural choice to buy when I was looking for popular middle level books to add to my library.

I can’t say I was blown away, but it was a solid, memorable book. I was expecting it to be all from Auggie’s point of view, but I really enjoyed all the different viewpoints from his sister Olivia to her ex-best friend to Auggie’s friends. When someone you know and love has a disability or physical abnormality, those people’s lives are affected too.

I am a big fan of kids being nice to teach other. After the suicide of a friend due to bullying, I have zero tolerance for kids being mean. This story is a powerful message of the difference friends and bullies make. I would recommend Wonder to kids who feel different and need to know that their feelings are justified. I might also recommend it to kids who aren’t always nice to others to help them see the negative impact they make and the positive impact they could make if they made better choices. I’d also recommend it as an “easy” read for struggling readers because the story of straight-forward and easy to understand.

I’m a little surprised at the high lexile because it seemed pretty low level to me. That said, it’s ELL-friendly except for one chapter told from the viewpoint of Olivia’s boyfriend. I don’t have the book in front of me, but I don’t think there were capitals or correct punctuation.

For doing a book talk, I might ask students if they’ve seen kids being mean to each other or bullied. I might ask them to think about how awesome it felt when someone was nice to them when they needed support. I’d talk about how scary it is to start at a new school and how hard it would be if you’d never been to public school and had severe facial abnormalities. It’d be hard for that kid but also for the people who were nice to him as well as his family. A book talk may not be necessary because of its reputation, though.

Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff

Pictures of Hollis WoodsReading level: 4.5
Lexile: 650
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Summary:

Hollis Woods is an orphan and foster child, constantly bouncing from home to home, never really belonging while gaining a reputation for being nothing but trouble.  She is placed with a loving, elderly artist, and Hollis thinks she’s found her forever home at last. She realizes quickly that the woman she’s come to love is losing her memory and cannot support them. So Hollis takes the situation into her own hands, and they both run away together.

Pictures of Hollis Woods, I feel, is nothing particular new or moving. Orphan girl wants family, runs away, finds family, runs away again, finds family. What I thought was  interesting is the way this story is told. Hollis goes between past and present: the past of living with Steven’s family and the present of living with Josie. She remembers the past by recalling the pictures she drew. Pictures are Hollis’ way of making sense of her present, remembering the past, and, as it turns out, interpreting the past in order to make informed decisions for the future.

I would recommend this story to kids who enjoyed The Road to Paris and/or kids who enjoy slow-paced, deep, realistic fiction rather than fast-paced action. There is also a bit of mystery in the story about why Hollis left Steven’s family, and there is the anticipation of what will happen when Hollis and Josie flee together. I might also recommend Pictures of Hollis Woods to students who so badly want a loving family. Hollis teaches us that there is always hope and that to find hope, you must be resilient.

The reading level, lexile, and age of our main character (she’s 12) make this book best suited for middle school. From what I recall (again, I wasn’t paying super close attention), it’s ELL-friendly with pretty simple vocabulary. It might be helpful for students to know words such as picture, pencil, painting, shading, etc., because so much of Hollis’ identity is in her pictures.

The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch

The Name of this Book is SecretReading level: 5.3
Lexile: 810
Series: Secret book 1
Genre: Adventure, humor
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Warning: this description has not been authorized by Pseudonymous Bosch. As much as he’d love to sing the praises of his book (he is very vain), he wouldn’t want you to hear about his brave 11-year old heroes, Cass and Max-Ernest. Or about how a mysterious box of vials, the Symphony of Smells, sends them on the trail of a magician who has vanished under strange (and stinky) circumstances. And he certainly wouldn’t want you to know about the hair-raising adventures that follow and the nefarious villains they face. You see, not only is the name of this book secret, the story inside is, too. For it concerns a secret. A Big Secret.

I may have overlooked this entire series had an 8th grader at my student teaching placement not pointed it out to me. If the description and title look a little wacky, you’re right. The Name of This Book is Secret was pretty fun, not to mention snarky. It compares to The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket with the author’s coming through to interject explanations along with abundant danger and mystery.

This story is geared towards younger middle school/upper elementary, yet the lexile range is fairly high, making it not very well suited for ELLs. The vocabulary is pretty sophisticated although the plot itself is not. I think that this whole series could appeal to kids who are reluctant readers if they aren’t below the 5th grade reading level.

I decided about half way through this book that I wouldn’t continue with the series. I’ve been bored with middle level YA lately, but I am still interested in how the rest of the stories play out. There’s just 1000000 more books I’d rather read. That said, the Cass/Max-Earnest duo is excellent. (Unfortunately Max-Earnest seems to have no similarities to Max Ernst.) They are unlikely friends, and they’re not perfect. However, they find ways to overcome their differences. And of course our villains are excellent. Very mysterious. 😉 This story teaches loyalty and bravery and does so in a clever way.

I’d recommend this book to (like I said) reluctant readers, kids with a good sense of humor, and those who like adventure/mystery.

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Life as we knew itReading level: 5.0 (ish)
Lexile: 770
Series: Life As We Knew It book 1
Genre: Science fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Miranda’s disbelief turns to fear in a split second when a meteor knocks the moon closer to the earth. How should her family prepare for the future when worldwide tsunamis wipe out the coasts, earthquakes rock the continents, and volcanic ash blocks out the sun? As summer turns to Arctic winter, Miranda, her two brothers, and their mother retreat to the unexpected safe haven of their sunroom, where they subsist on stockpiled food and limited water in the warmth of a wood-burning stove.

This book is fairly popular amongst middle schoolers, so I jumped at the opportunity to buy it for a few cents. It was so worth it. I mean, doesn’t the summary alone sound interesting? The answer is yes. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, actually.

Here is my warning. While this book is targeted at the middle school/lower high school age group, it is dark. There is death and suffering at every turn, and it’s quite morbid as Miranda prepares herself to die and watches those around her perish. This story is not for the faint of heart, but it’s so intense that it could interest both boys and girls and hold on with an intensity that other books may not be able to accomplish.

I was slightly put off by the diary-style writing, which I tend to dislike as a general rule, but it flowed really well. For one, the narrator/diary author Miranda adds dialogue, so it flowed like a novel and not a diary. However, the diary style worked out well in that Miranda’s voice, hopes, fears, crushes, etc., come out loud and clear. She is very much a teenage girl, and a delightful one (if slightly irritating sometimes) at that. While it’s written from a girl’s point of view, I bet boys could be persuaded to at least try it just because it’s so intense. There’s only a little bit of romance that boys might cringe at… 🙂

Not only is Miranda’s voice realistic but the whole situation is, too. As far as my limited science knowledge is concerned, the moon getting knocked closer to Earth could very well cause the natural disasters and situations described in this book. One of Miranda’s friends becomes enveloped in her Christian faith to the point where she starves herself because God wants her to. Miranda winds up yelling at her friend’s pastor about how God isn’t helping anyone and neither is faith. I could see how religious families might get upset because this one, limited aspect of religion is painted in a negative light due to fanaticism. However, that is but one small part of the story.

The other potential red flags are occasional swear words and just a few mentions of sex. They were so brief and unimportant that I can’t even remember the context. Therefore, taking into account the brief, adult language and the morbidity of the whole situation, I’d say that it’s best for upper middle schoolers, 7th and up. Sixth graders are often taking that year to transition from elementary to middle school and are really 5th graders at heart.

The bad news is that Life As We Knew It is the first in a series that has decreasing ratings. After the whole Maze Runner series fiasco, I’m not buying into series just because I read the first book. The good news is that this story wraps up well and not on a cliffhanger.

Go forth, my friends, and read this book if you’re looking for a depressing yet hopeful thrill ride that will make you appreciate the lives we have now.

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).

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

the amber spyglassReading level: 6.7
Lexile: 950
Series: His Dark Materials book 3
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Lyra and Will are in unspeakable danger. With help from Iorek Byrnison the armored bear and two tiny Gallivespian spies, they must journey to a dank and gray-lit world where no living soul has ever gone. All the while, Dr. Mary Malone builds a magnificent Amber Spyglass. An assassin hunts her down, and Lord Asriel, with a troop of shining angels, fights his mighty rebellion, in a battle of strange allies—and shocking sacrifice.

So much is happening in this final book of the series. So much. And with all the plot lines, one would hope that everything (or at least something) would come together in the end and make sense. But it didn’t. Too many undeveloped characters alongside confusing plots that never really answer our questions or deliver on the prophecy made me pretty disappointed.

One of the plots (the major one, in fact) throughout the entire series is Lord Asriel setting out to kill god. He kills the all-powerful angel who was taking over, but is god actually ever killed? Wait, was he the really old angel who disappeared and was only briefly mentioned? This entire, huge chunk of plot just fell apart for me.

I’m thoroughly confused about whether Ms. Coulter is redeemed or not. I don’t know if she was lying about her love for Lyra and how she’d changed. And if she was telling the truth, what made her change? She was an excellent villain that morphed into a crying, desperate lump of a woman with confusing motives.

My final bone to pick is about the love between Lyra and Will. It happened so quickly and messily that I was rather repulsed, which was also due to them being something like 12 and 14 years old. When they realized their love for each other, Lyra became a fairly useless teenager unable to read the alethiometer and unwilling to tell lies and stories. I prefer to remember her as she was in the first book.

With all the characters and plots happening all over the place, I legitimately enjoyed Mary’s adventures with the Mulefa. I loved the world building and the emphasis on what evolution can do. I also enjoyed Will and Lyra going to the World of the Dead, which reminded me of the necromancing of The Abhorsen series by Garth Nix that I loved so much.

Finally, I did like the final “message,” if that’s what you can call it. In order to allow a window between the worlds to remain open, Lyra and Will must spread good deeds and help people be…good. Okay, I like that. Spreading the word of being nice to each other is a great message. I don’t understand how that prevents dust from escaping, but I’ll just add that to the list of plot holes.

Any commentary I could give on recommendations for kids and what to do with this book in the classroom can be found in my reviews of The Golden Compass and/or The Subtle Knife.

Running with the Reservoir Pups by Colin Bateman

Running with the Reservoir PupsReading level: 4.5 (ish)
Series: Eddie and the Gang With No Name book 1
Genre: Adventure, humor
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Eddie has a bad habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Otherwise, he never would have gotten mixed up with the Reservoir Pups, the scrappy gang of boys who rule the streets in his new town. And he definitely wouldn’t have agreed to their initiation mission: to break into the hospital his mom works at. It’s just Eddie’s luck that he stumbles upon some twisted baby-snatchers on the way. And just when it seems like life can’t get any worse, he bumps into the leader of the Andytown Albinos, the most fearsome gang of all. . . .

Running with the Reservoir Pups starts out on an interesting note with a new kid in town learning the ropes and getting into trouble by just being unlucky. The writing is snarky and clever, and it feels like it’s written to middle school boys rather than for them. I think middle school boys could really get into it.

Unfortunately, the further I got into the book, the less I liked it. As we get thicker into the plot, the sillier it becomes. And silly is fine, but I was led to believe from the first several chapters that it was a realistic story. What with kidnapping babies, boys beating up (at least verbally) on doughnut-eating policemen, and daring rescues with explosions, it just snowballed into utter goofiness. But like I said, that might be what some middle schoolers really love.

In addition to the silliness, I just don’t like Eddie. He is mean, simply put. Even though Scuttles (his arch nemesis and mom’s boyfriend) is obviously a good guy after we see how he cares for the babies, Eddie is still a complete and utter jerk to him.

Now, you may be wondering about the “gang” part of the book. The Reservoir Pups gang is clearly a menace but Eddie decides to try to join. We learn towards the end that apparently the only reason the Pups rescue a certain someone is because they would get paid. These kids are truly the worst of juvenile delinquents intent on doing nothing to help anyone but” themselves even when it means walking away from saving an innocent life. At the end, Eddie and his buddy decide to form their own gang and basically destroy The Reservoir Pups in the following books, which brings to mind violence, violence, and more violence.

I really don’t think this book would be contested, but I would argue that it’s fine to have kids reading it because none of the gangs seem very enticing, and I doubt kids would be inspired to join a gang because of it. Friendship, belonging, and camaraderie are the emphasized subjects more than joining a gang to wreak havoc on society. In addition, throughout the book, Eddie tries to get the help of the Pups, but they refuse him or only help with a heavy price, so they are clearly not people to be crossed or befriended.

For the most part, Running with the Reservoir Pups is ELL-friendly other than a few British English words, such as lorrie. I don’t think these words would do more than cause minor confusion because they are few and far between. The reading level is my best guess because Scholastic hasn’t leveled it.

If you’re looking for a pretty solid and not too serious middle level book that picky boy readers might like, this book could be it. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking and well-written story, you can do much better.

 

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The Subtle Knife

Reading level: 7.6
Lexile: 890
Series: His Dark Materials book 2
Genre: Fantasy, adventure
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary

Having slipped through a newly formed astral portal, the intrepid Lyra finds herself in the beautiful, haunted world of Città gazze–a city where soul-eating Specters stalk the streets and the wingbeats of distant angels sound against the sky. But she is not without allies. For young Will Parry, in search of his father, has also stumbled into this strange new realm via a magic gateway.


Together the enlightened pair forge ahead on a perilous journey between worlds teeming with witches, angels, and sorcery–and uncover a deadly secret: an object of extraordinary and devastating power. But with every step, they move closer to an even greater threat–and the shattering truth of their own destiny…

I struggled to like this book as much as The Golden Compass, although I loved the parts with Lyra and Will. Lyra is an amazing heroine and I adore her, but we only have glimpses of her adventure…which brings me to perhaps my biggest issue: this story is very complex. There are several puzzle pieces with various characters and their adventures, locations, and goals, and I struggled to create a clear picture with these pieces. Because there are so many components of the plot, we get flashes of many, many characters. I kept hoping that Lyra would take center stage, but she never did.

With so many characters and so many pieces of plot came fewer opportunities for me to fall in love with the characters. I adore books where one or more characters become very dear to me, and I felt less of that in this book than I would have liked. But that’s just my personal opinion.

I do not blame Will for stealing the show, just to be clear. I quite like Will’s character although he scares me with his tendency towards violence. Will and Lyra teaming up made me love and appreciate Lyra even more, and while I love Will, I love Lyra much, much more. I truly hope that we get more Lyra in the final book, even if it means less of Will.

I’m unsure of how Lord Asriel plans to do this, but apparently he’s trying to kill God. I guess someone is taking Nietzsche a little too literally. Anyway, I certainly see how some parents could be upset by this concept. But like one reviewer on Goodreads said, these books are not anti-God or even anti-religion. They are anti-organized religion that make people do horrible things, such as cutting people’s daemons away in this fantasy world or speaking out against certain types of people (gay people, for instance) in our world.

Here is an interesting part near the end that made my jaw drop. Seriously, I was in the car driving while listening to the audiobook and my mouth literally fell open. Mrs. Coulter is trying to get information out of Carlo, and she says, “You know I can please you more than this.” And then “her daemon’s little black horny hands were stroking the serpent daemon. Little by little the serpent loosened herself and began to flow along the man’s arm toward the monkey. “Ah,” says Carlo.  Um…wow. Not too subtle, there. In arguing that this book should be kept on school bookshelves, I’d say that very few young readers (middle school and younger, if not up through high school) would get the suggestive imagery, and there is absolutely nothing explicit. I just thought I’d let all the ghosts out of the attic in this review.

I’m about to start the final book of this trilogy, and I am hoping against hope that it’s better than this one and that I can leave this series with good memories more than mediocre ones.

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.

 

Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang

red scarf girlReading level: 6.1
Lexile: 780
Genre: Memoir
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Red Scarf Girl is a memoir chronicling Ji-Li’s life during Mao’s Cultural Revolution while she was twelve to fourteen years old. She lives a carefree, happy life until the Cultural Revolution where her family gains poor political status, her father is detained, her immediate and extended family is humiliated, and she must choose between having a bright future and siding with her counterrevolutionary parents.

While the Cultural Revolution is not new to me, Ji-Li’s memoir is still moving, educational, and distressing. It’s written so simply, perhaps for the purpose of targeting a younger audience, but the matter-of-fact way she tells her story has a great deal of impact. I think it’s important for all people, students included, to know the story of this time period, because these horrors keep repeating themselves.

What is most interesting to me, personally, about this time period is that despite all the atrocities and injustices happening to Ji-Li and her family, she doesn’t lose faith in the revolution or in Mao. In fact, in the epilogue, the now-adult Ji-Li explains that she was thoroughly brainwashed, causing her, and others, to justify what was happening. Above all else, what will stick with me from this story is the idea that humans can be so thoroughly awful to one another and that we must understand our history as much as possible so as to prevent it from happening again(or to continue happening, anyway).

I see many similarities between The Cultural Revolution and the years leading up to (and during) the Holocaust in the ways people were treated due to their background and values. Even if I cannot teach about 20th century China, I would encourage students to read Red Scarf Girl if I teach about the Holocaust.

Like I said, the language and writing is fairly simple, so it’s good for ELLs. There are evidently lots of resources for teaching Red Scarf Girl. As a whole-class read along, it would be an excellent middle-grade book to discuss this time period, family ties, resiliency, hope, fear, propaganda, injustice… I would recommend this memoir to readers who enjoy non-fiction, Chinese students interested in their history, and students who need a bit of a challenge and enjoy learning about history and the world. Vocabulary words specific to this time period are listed in the glossary in the back of the book.

Red Scarf Girl is my thirty-fourth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Previous Older Entries