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.

Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy by Wendelin Van Draanen

sammy keyes and the sisters of mercyReading level: 6.3
Lexile: 850
Series: Sammy Keyes #3
Genre: Mystery
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Sammy Keyes is working off some junior high detention time by helping out at St. Mary’s. Then Father Mayhew’s ivory cross disappears – and Sammy becomes the prime suspect. While she’s looking for the real culprit, Sammy is amazed to find gossip and petty jealousy bubbling beneath the church’s serene surface. This is just like junior high!

Caught in the middle of the mystery are a homeless girl in high-tops, a trio of singing nuns, two angry sisters, and one bumbling Brother. With a crazy cast like this, it’s not so easy to tell the saints from the sinners…

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this book (technically audiobook), but I was pleasantly surprised. The Sammy Keyes series (judging from this one book) is certainly for the middle grades, but it is critical and engaging and suspenseful. I’ve been snatching up the rest of the series wherever I find them (i.e. library book sales…i.e. I may or may not have purchased over 50 books this weekend for about $0.17 per book at a sale).

Let’s focus on Sammy for a moment. She’s in 7th grade and is far from perfect. She’s sort of a trouble-maker in that she gets into trouble but doesn’t look for it, and the story begins with Sammy working off community service hours in lieu of school detention. Sammy is such a good sport, and not to mention funny. Part of my love of Sammy also comes from the wonderful narration done by Tara Sands who sounds like a younger Ellen Page.

There’s more to this story than Sammy solving a mystery. She befriends a homeless girl, lives with her grandmother instead of her parents, holds on dearly to the one artifact she has of her absent father, and faces some bullies with (mostly) grace and tactfulness.

Now, I was a little wary of this book initially because of the religion aspect, but there is nothing indoctrination-y about it. The nuns and pastor are all about God’s will and doing the right thing by God, but religion isn’t pressed, nor is it discussed in depth. Sammy herself isn’t particularly religious, so it is certainly not at the forefront.

Heather is a terrific bully. Man, she really got to me. However, Sammy transcends her rivalry to see that Heather’s biggest enemy isn’t Sammy…it’s herself. Deep, right? So even though Heather isn’t redeemed in this book, I have hope that we’ll come to the bottom of her nastiness later in the series.

This is book 3 of the Sammy Keyes series and is the first one I’ve read. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything, so you can probably pick up any book in the series in any order and not be left behind. That said, I’m guessing that the further we get into the series the more we learn about Sammy’s mom and dad and why she’s living with her grandmother.

Unfortunately, it’s not super ELL-friendly due to colloquialisms and vocabulary. There are at least two extensive softball scenes that include vocabulary like ball, strike, catcher, base, line drive, shortstop… There is also vocabulary specific to church, such as habit (the outfit nuns wear), brother, and sister, and then there’s the soup kitchen, which is not just a kitchen with soup as one might be lead to assume.

I’m confused about Scholastic’s leveling here. I agree that the book is at about a 6th grade reading level, but I don’t understand how the interest level can be 3rd grade. How can a book be at a 6th grade reading level but be for kids 3 years younger than that? Do 3rd graders have the necessary vocabulary to understand it fully without being lost? My recommendation, then, is high elementary, low middle school, non-ELL unless they’ve got excellent decoding skills, a translator, and/or a dictionary.

Sammy Keyes was really fun, but I don’t think I’ll read the rest of the series. I’m flat out making an assumption about the rest of the series being for the demographic listed above so I can move on to other books.

Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy is my twentieth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

North of Nowhere by Liz Kessler

North of NowhereReading level: 5-6th grade
Genre: Magical realism, mystery
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

The sleepy seaside village of Porthaven hides a mystery: Mia’s grandad has vanished, and nobody knows why. When Mia and her mom rush to Porthaven to help her grandmother, Mia imagines long dreary days with no one to talk to except for the old-time fisherman at her grandparents’ pub. But that’s before Mia finds a diary on an empty, docked fishing boat and starts exchanging notes with a local girl named Dee, a girl who seems much like her. Mia is excited about having a new friend, but why do their plans to meet each other never materialize? And why does Dee claim to be stuck at home due to violent storms when Mia sees only sunny skies? Will Mia be able to solve the mystery of where — and when — her grandfather and friend might be before time and tide forever wash away their futures?

This book, my friends, knocked my socks off.

North of Nowhere is an astoundingly clever little book. We have Mia’s thirteen-year-old narration voice combined with other mysterious voices written in italics throughout the story, and we don’t really know who those people are until the end (unless you’ve made some educated guesses earlier on). One mystery starts immediately with an odd compass. The next mystery is that Mia’s grandfather disappears. Then Mia’s new friend disappears as well, there’s an island ravaged by a storm that happened fifty years ago but that Mia witnesses…


At first, there’s not much to suggest that the story has any sort of magical components, and it seems perfectly realistic except for clues here and there. Some of those clues that there is something going on between past and present include that compass from the beginning, a sailor who doesn’t recognize anyone at a place he frequents, men saying that the island Mia’s friend lives on does not exist… It just builds and builds until it pretty much blows your mind as Mia and her friend take a boat to that island on a rescue mission only to return for help, get back to the island, and find a whole new scene. When this genre is done right, it sure is great.

The one complaint I have is that the ending was sort of like the ending of every Scooby-Doo show: the gang stands around and asks “But how did you know who the monster really was?” and someone explains the whole mystery step by step.  But it is a middle level book, after all, written for middle schoolers, so the clear explanation wasn’t out of context.

North of Nowhere is also written to that middle school age group. I felt that Mia’s voice was really speaking to the reader and could connect with younger kiddos. Even though, to me, she was just another teenage girl wanting to make friends and have fun, Mia’s voice was incredibly realistic.

Aside from some sentence fragments and marine-specific vocabulary, it’s ELL friendly. I mean, the traveling in time bit gets confusing, but as long as students can understand relationships between characters and going backwards and forwards in time, ELLs should have no more trouble than native English speakers.

I made an educated guess about the reading level since the book is too new to be listed with Scholastic.

North of Nowhere is my sixteenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Secrets by Christine Harris

SecretsReading level: 4.2
Lexile: 550
Series: Undercover Girl book 1
Genre: Spy, mystery, thriller
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Jesse Sharpe is no ordinary kid. She’s an orphan, a genius, and a secret agent. Jesse has been assigned by C2–the mysterious organization that raised her and taught her to be a spy–to protect another girl from a kidnap attempt. Jesse will have to trail suspects, plant listening devices, crack codes, and kick occasional bad guy butt. What Jesse doesn’t know is whether she can trust C2 and the information she has been given–or if someone within the organization is trying to blow her cover.

Not gonna lie, this book looked pretty girly, cliche, and generally unappealing. Turns out, it’s pretty awesome!

Okay, so it was girly as in the main character Jesse is a girl, but she’s brilliant (a genius, technically), tough, brave, and funny. And it’s a little cliche in the plot line. But at the same time, the underlying plot is quite complex, and there are many secrets (eh, see the reason for the terrible title?) left unanswered.

There is nothing inappropriate, and it’s good for ELLs. Because of the low reading level and age of our heroine (she’s 11ish?), Secrets is better suited for middle school readers, but it could be a good book for high school ELLs.

Secrets is my seventh book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

In the Stone Circle – Elizabeth Cody Kimmel

in the stone circleReading level: 5.5

Genre: mystery, paranormal

ELL-Friendly: Yes

Library recommendation: Middle school

I confess that I love ghost stories, and I was quite pleased with this one. Although it was a tad juvenile, I turned on a few extra lights when I went to bed.

Cristyn came off as annoying and spoiled at the beginning, but her true (non-obnoxious) colors showed when she befriended 8 year-old Dennis and served as mediator between Miranda and her family. She really turned into a likeable character in very little time.

Miranda is a little twerp annoying. She reminds me of Phoebe in Walk Two Moons in that her character was pretty unlikable, but underlying stressers were causing her nasty attitude. The lesson here is that to know someone truly, we must understand all that they’re going through, their past and present. This lesson also applies to Dennis who acted out for various reasons and to Dennis and Miranda’s mother. Essentially, judging people is bad.

I think this book could be powerful in the hands of a student who has lost a family member through death or divorce. Although in this story Miranda’s dad is sort of the bad guy, we see how divorce can tear apart families, but also how they can be put back together. It might be good for students to read about kids like them struggling due to their parents divorcing. This story might also help students with the loss of a loved one because it highlights how hard it is to talk about and that it’s impossible to “get over it.”

I recommending this book to middle schoolers; it’s too easy of a read for high schoolers, and the subject matter is, like I said, juvenile. There are a dozen or so instances of characters saying things like “My God” or “Oh my God” to the point where it was a little excessive. That might bug some parents/students. There’s also about half a dozen-ish curse words – but not really bad ones, or anything. I don’t think these two reasons are enough to keep it off the shelves. I mean, if zero swearing were allowed in school books, there would be no school libraries.

Something that did really bug me was one or two characters using the term “retard” in a derogatory way. The first time, I pretended I didn’t see it. The second time, I crossed it out with a pencil so students will know that the word is there (I’m not censoring) but will know that it’s “bad” essentially.

The book is good for ELLs, but there are colloquialisms throughout, not to mention Welsh names of places and people. But I think that in the hands of an intermediate student, it could be just the level of familiar and difficult to get students thinking a little harder than they’re used to (Vygotsky’s i+1, anyone?). I mean that the language is at a low-level and is written how people casually speak. Throughout, there are academic words, Welsh terms, and figures of speech that might be a bit confusing.

I Am The Messenger – Markus Zusak

I am the messengerReading level: 6.2

Genre: Realistic fiction, mystery

ELL-Friendly: Yes

Library recommendation: High school

I read The Book Thief by Zusak last year and LOVED it. I was wary of reading another of his books for fear that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations, but I Am The Messenger didn’t disappoint.

At first I struggled to like the narrator Ed Kennedy. At the very end, someone calls him the “epitome of ordinary” which is why he didn’t strike me as particularly kind, sweet, or interesting. But what he DOES is extraordinary. He goes about it in a rather matter-of-fact way, which I found weird, but that’s just Ed – he rolls with the punches and takes life as it is. He’s just the messenger. It’s his assignments that held my interest more than his character, although he’s clearly a genuinely good guy.

This is one book that’s really sticking with me. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

OH I forgot to mention the best part. I listened to the audiobook which was read by an Australian! It’s set in Australia and the author is Australian, and I was thrilled to be read a story by someone with that accent. It complicated some things where words were pronounced differently than what I was familiar with, but it was all worth it. For example, “math” was pronounced like “meth” which caused some confusion on my end. Plus, students wouldn’t have that problem if they read the book rather than listened to it.

There are several reasons why I don’t think this book would sit well with middle schoolers and why I wouldn’t put it on my middle school shelves without some discretion (if I owned the book).

  • Swearing. It’s not excessive and no F-bombs, but there’s enough to make parents mad (am I being too sensitive about that?)
  • Sex. There are some references to and thoughts of it but nothing explicit like in Beauty Queens.
  • Plot. There really isn’t one. The story is more like a bunch of small fragments as Ed acts on his messages with different people. Holding it all together is his will to find out who’s behind it and his love for Audrey. Because there’s no driving plot, I’m assuming few middle schoolers would take interest. The “interest group” according to Scholastic is 9th grade despite the reading level being 6th grade.

I would gladly put it on a high school shelf, though. The content is more mature but something students could get behind. The overall message (no pun intended), I think, is to LIVE your life and improve the lives of others. It’s truly a feel-good story that restores one’s faith in humanity. There’s so much good out there that you don’t even know until you put yourself in a vulnerable place that allows you to see it.

Walk Two Moons – Sharon Creech

walktwomoonsReading level: 4.9

Genre: Realistic fiction, mystery

ELL-Friendly: Mostly

Library recommendation: Middle school

This book was read to my 3rd grade class many years ago, so as I re-read it, bits and pieces of plots and characters came back to me. Yet the ending caught me off guard; I really didn’t see it coming (which I suppose was kind of obvious for someone who hadn’t even read the book), and then crying ensued.

It’s quite a beautiful story of loss, friendship, love, and family. As Salamanca narrates her story as well as her friend Phoebe’s, she comes to understand herself. I really disliked Phoebe because she was just not a likeable character, but Sal likes her because Sal knows what’s it’s like to be in her shoes. That’s a good lesson for anyone: don’t judge a man till you have walked two moons in his moccasins.

The “love” between Sal and Ben is just precious – awkward, beautiful, teenage love. And nothing too graphic to  keep the book off the school shelves! Yay! Or, as Gram would say, “Huzza, huzza.”

Sal is part Native American/Indian and there are bits throughout the book about various Native American controversies. At once point, Sal mentions that if a Native were to demand that the land they were on was his, she would give it back…because it belonged to the Natives. At one tourist town, she explains how the Natives prefer to be called Indians and how a place with the word “Injun” was crossed out and re-written to say “Indian.”

Sal gleams over these bits because she is young and it’s not something she’s focused on, but there is much that students could discuss and write about. Walk Two Moons could also be an excellent mentor text because there are two stories happening at once that are separate yet come together at the end.

The book is basically ELL-friendly except there’s quite a bit of colloquialisms like “catching fish in the air.” If the book were read as a class, those phrases could be explained. I would worry about ELLs reading the book without some oversight. Perhaps the teacher could tell the student to write down any phrase she didn’t understand (give some examples) and turn it into a mini-assignment about guessing and researching what those phrases mean. Gramps pronounces words in interesting ways (carburetor becomes car-burn-ator or something) which might also through off some ELLs. But there’s not enough of those to hang students up and make them miss meaning.

I might recommend the book to a student who has moved or will move, or a student who has lost a family member. While the book is sad at the end, it’s all about Sal coping with the losses.