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.

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.

Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle

Let it SnowReading level: 5th (ish)
Genre: Romance
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Sparkling white snowdrifts, beautiful presents wrapped in ribbons, and multicolored lights glittering in the night through the falling snow. A Christmas Eve snowstorm transforms one small town into a romantic haven, the kind you see only in movies. Well, kinda. After all, a cold and wet hike from a stranded train through the middle of nowhere would not normally end with a delicious kiss from a charming stranger. And no one would think that a trip to the Waffle House through four feet of snow would lead to love with an old friend. Or that the way back to true love begins with a painfully early morning shift at Starbucks. 

Honestly, I’m not a fan of Christmas stories or romance stories, and I only read Let It Snow because it was the last published John Green story that I hadn’t read. However, I did enjoy the stories (except for maybe the final one), but I won’t go out of my way to get a copy for myself or my classroom library. As a trio, I loved how the stories interwove with each other. That is, the three stories contain some of the same characters that adds some depth and surprises I wasn’t expecting.

Each of the stories contain mild swearing, and one story in particular contains several mild references to sex, which would get a pg-13 sticker from me if I owned a copy. That said, because of some of the “mature” content, the nature of romance stories, and the ages of the characters (high school), Let It Snow would appeal more to the high school age group but wouldn’t be unfit for upper middle school, either. In general, it is ELL-friendly with some exceptions of words here and there that just seemed out of place in otherwise simply-written stories.

“The Jubilee Express” by Maureen Johnson

Jubilee takes a trip by train, but the train is delayed by a snow storm, so she winds up staying with a boy and his family. Jubilee was a likable character but reminded me a little of helpless, pathetic Bella Swan in that she is clumsy and tends to ramble, which makes her look uncontrollably weird. Because it’s a romance story, Jubilee and The Boy (Stewart) get together. Overall, it was a sweet story if just a little weird with the mom encouraging Stewart to hook up with this random girl (Jubilee) and the romance moving very quickly.

“A Cheertastic Miracle” by John Green

Three friends risk their lives to get to The Waffle House in the midst of a snow storm in order to bring Twister to a group of cheerleaders who are displaced on the same broken-down train as Jubilee. This short story is similar to An Abundance of Katherines where the story is hormone-driven and features an obnoxious minority friend of the main character. The boys’ obsession with cheerleaders gets SUPER annoying. There is a beautiful moment (the kind that John Green is famous for) among the incredibly shallow plot line of MUST GET TO CHEERLEADERS. The main character is remarking on the changes that happen between boys and girls that cause friendship to become something more and how that change can be dangerous by ruining innocent and special relationships.

“The Patron Saint of Pigs” by Lauren Myracle

Okay, this is the story that I particularly disliked. We are reconnected with Jeb, whom we meet in the first story. Addie and he had dated before Addie made a big mistake and ruined the relationship, and the entirety of the story is Addie pining for him. Addie is pretty deplorable. She’s annoying and selfish. Yes, she realizes she is too self-centered, but saying a few nice things and doing an errand from a friend hardly changed my perception of her.

As I was reflecting on how I disliked Addie and why, I realized that all of these stories are so white-washed and upper class. Sure, Jeb is Native and Annoying Kid from John Green’s story is Asian, but, man, so much privilege and so many winy, spoiled teenagers. This book has gotten pretty great reviews, so don’t be discouraged because of me. Like I said, I was never a fan of romances or Christmas stories in the first place.

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.

The Fattening Hut by Pat Lowery Collins

fattening hutReading level: ~7
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Helen doesn’t want to stay in the fattening hut. She’s told her mother that she’s too young, not ready for it. Why must she marry so soon? She doesn’t want to gorge on rich meals for months—until she is round and heavy, like a good bride should be. Just like her mother and sister before her, just like all the women of her tribe. When she finds out the terrible secret the fattening hut harbors, she becomes even more confused and defiant. Lonely, scared, and feeling hemmed in by family, by culture, and by tradition, Helen fights for the chance to be educated, young, and free.

The Fattening Hut is  a long, free-form poem. Quite honestly, I would have preferred prose, as I don’t see the point of free-form poetry. The line breaks have always seemed arbitrary. The author actually explains at the end that she originally started writing the story in prose but changed to free-form poem, which she felt was a better fit.

The author’s note at the end of the book (at least in my ARC copy) is helpful in explaining a few things, namely that the culture and location in this story is a conglomerate of real places and the author’s imagination. She took aspects of Nigerian culture and rituals and placed her characters on a fictional island that might as well be a real place. I appreciated Collins making up the location, (parts of) rituals, and religion because you get into repatriation issues when authors write about cultures not their own.

Right from the beginning, The Fattening Hut is interesting because girls are fattened before being married because being skinny is not attractive or healthy. Helen, our narrator, isn’t buying it and questions the rules of the culture, such as geting fat, having to marry someone she doesn’t love, being submissive to men… When she learns about the female genital cutting ceremony, she flees the fattening hut and seeks a safe haven, which is currently happening (in reality) in places around Africa and possibly in other places in which female cutting is performed.

The suggested reader interest age, according to Scholastic, is 9th grade. There is absolutely nothing graphic in this story, but the concept itself is uncomfortable to think about and discuss for many of us. Due to the content, then, I suggest this book for high school readers, although I have no qualms about sticking it in a middle school library with a pg-13 rating sticker. Also, apparently Scholastic can’t level this book, possibly because it’s a poem. Anyway, my best guess for a reading level is 7th grade because it’s going to take a strong reader to understand the vocabulary and the writing that implies the culture’s secrets more than saying so directly.

It isn’t ELL-friendly because of complex vocabulary and syntax. There are words for plants and animals that I wasn’t familiar with but may be common knowledge to kiddos from parts of Africa or surrounding areas. The syntax is…not sure how to explain this…er…complex. The writing is beautiful and descriptive, but it’s a bit tricky.

I didn’t love this book, but I did like it enough to rate it 3 out of 5 stars on goodreads.  I was rooting for Helen to follow her heart, which told her to rebel against her culture. The plot was just slow moving. Something else that irked me was that the culture in which Helen lives is portrayed so negatively: female genital cutting, male dominance, forced arrange marriage… While these may be very real parts of cultures today, the message is loud and clear that all of these aspects are wrong. Coming from a white author not from Africa, I was a little uncomfortable. Helen’s culture is almost made out to be barbaric, and I failed to see many redeeming qualities. I don’t want students to read this story and generalize that all cultures that practice FGC or, worse, all cultures in Africa, are this way and are terrible places for women.

The Fattening Hut is my nineteenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

E940_SCH_BornConfused_0.tifReading level: 7.2
Lexile: 890
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Dimple Lala doesn’t know what to think. Her parents are from India, and she’s spent her whole life resisting their traditions. Then suddenly she gets to high school and everything Indian is trendy. To make matters worse, her parents arrange for her to meet a “suitable boy.” Of course it doesn’t go well — until Dimple goes to a club and finds him spinning a magical web . Suddenly the suitable boy is suitable because of his sheer unsuitability. Complications ensue. This is a funny, thoughtful story about finding your heart, finding your culture, and finding your place in America.

Minor spoilers below!

The synopsis of Born Confused is terribly generic: teenage Indian girl living in the US resists family traditions of her parents, struggles to figure out who she is and where she fits in Indian/American culture, fights with her best friend over a boy, and ultimately discovers her identity. Nothing new, right? Maybe not, but what led me to rate this book 5 out of 5 stars (which doesn’t happen very often) was the beautiful writing and the realistic (though not always likeable) characters.

I loved the main character and narrator Dimple mostly because she is so introspective. She works to tease out her feelings so she can analyze them as she wrestles with her identity. Especially in contrast to her best friend Gwen, Dimple is humble and kind. Dimple is a girl I could be friends with, and those, to me, are the best characters.

Now, Gwen is also interesting. We don’t learn until well into the story that she has many secrets, but I didn’t feel like her background excused her from being rude and manipulative at times. Plus, Gwen is overly confident (at least so it appears) and extroverted, the opposite of Dimple (and me), which made her hard to like, but it also made it easy for me to be legitimately mad at her, causing me to be even more on Dimple’s side.

Dimple’s parents are great in that they are annoying and embarrassing but so, so loving. Dimple feels suffocated by them while appreciating all that they do for her, and she has the unique ability to understand their motives while disagreeing but not full-out revolting. Dimple and Gwen talk about Dimple’s parents being “perfect” and how she can’t complain about anything bad in her life because she has two loving parents. Dimple replies that just because her family is intact doesn’t mean she must feel guilty. Rather, she should be appreciative, which she is.

Dimple’s cousin Kavita, we learn late in the story, is a lesbian who comes out of the closet to Dimple. Dimple reacts by embracing this new information while also wrestling with the idea that her “girly” cousin doesn’t fit the stereotypical description of lesbian. Dimple flat out asks her questions to Kavita, who answers thoughtfully and honestly. A beautiful moment.

We also meet Zara, a transvestite who Dimple befriends. And you can’t help but adore Zara with her confidence and strength to be who she is. Coming to know Zara is instrumental in helping Dimple embrace her identity.

While some parents might be upset that Born Confused has lesbians and transvestites, I’m not worried about those parts for the story. However, the characters do smoke pot and discuss sex occasionally, although there’s nothing graphic. For those two reasons, I’m rating it pg-13. And really, this story is written for approximately 9th grade and above (and maybe for more mature middle schoolers) due to the age of characters, what they’re experiencing, and the reading level. The story is beautifully written, but the language is complicated with Indian words, metaphors, pop culture references…you name it. Therefore it’s not ELL friendly.

Lastly, don’t be put off by the length of the book (it’s 512 pages). I listened to the audiobook, and the story breezed right by for me.

Born Confused is my fifteenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Hannah’s Garden by Midori Snyder

hannah's gardenReading level: 6.5(ish)
Genre: Magical realism, fantasy
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Seventeen-year-old Cassie Brittman is looking forward to her violin recital and the prom– until the hospital calls and she learns that her grandfather, noted mystical painter Daniel Brittman, is dying.

Cassie, her mother, Anne, and Anne’s new boyfriend travel to the family farm and immediately see that things are far from normal. The farm, including Great-Grandmother Hannah’s spiral garden, is almost destroyed, and someone (or something) seems to be stalking them. Cassie soon finds herself at the center of an age-old battle between two supernatural clans-the sinister, dark Red Clan and her own family, the Green Clan. For it turns out that Cassie’s grandfather is half nature spirit, half human…

Hannah’s Garden is an interesting blend of the every-day struggles of Cassie and her mother alongside the magic of the family farm. It’s one of the most beautifully-written stories I’ve read in a while, but some of the content left me underwhelmed.

Cassie faces a difficult decision that many of us have probably dealt with (or will in the future) in that she drops everything to help her mom care for her grandfather. She gives up the prom and her recital for a sick man who doesn’t recognize her anymore. Heartbreaking, right?

Things get interesting when we learn that Anne, Cassie’s mom, is more like a child herself, leaving Cassie as the mother figure at times, much like the family in Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle (which is a fantastic memoir that I highly recommend). The relationship between mother and daughter and also between them and the new boyfriend is frustrating, sweet, heart-wrenching, and so real. The boyfriend may have been my favorite character, actually, despite the reader not knowing much about him. He never gets upset, he doesn’t run away, and we don’t know why he sticks by Cassie and Anne other than because he’s a legitimately good person.

Then there’s the magical folk – the dancing figures in the background of the cover. We see glimpses of them straight from the beginning. But they’re no more than glimpses. Near the end, we finally get immersed in this magical world that apparently lives alongside humanity..? And here’s where I ran into problems. Because the magical part of this story came at the end, I was left with too many questions, and the world was not only unrealistic but not developed to my taste. It felt rushed. Personally, I would have liked the story more if it had forsaken the magic and focused on the familial aspect.

Again, part of the beauty of this story comes from the flowing prose. It’s not particularly ELL-friendly because the vocabulary is complex, especially when describing Cassie’s music (I’m a musician and I didn’t recognize all the words) and plants.

6.5 is my best guess of a reading level; none was listed on Scholastic’s website. Although it’s at a middle school reading level, it’s best suited for 8th grade and above because of some content. Let’s just say there are some moments featuring breasts, but those instances are brief. There are some curse words, too, but nothing in this book is enough keep it off the classroom shelves.

Hannah’s Garden is my thirteenth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Hoops of Steel by John Foley

Hoops of SteelReading level: 5.5
Genre: Sports, realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Basketball is Jackson O’Connell’s life. Much more than a game, it allows him to cross barriers of class and race, and make new friends from the rival high school. Driven by his passion for hoops, he can almost forget his alcoholic father and a night of violence that tore his family apart. Jackson’s senior year is plagued by volcanic zits, girl shyness, and rumors that isolate him from most of the school. And when team politics keep him off the starting lineup of the basketball team, his hopes for a scholarship plummet like an airball. His self-confidence in tatters, Jackson makes errors on and off the court that almost cost him a friend and the girl of his dreams. With no rulebook to follow, Jackson must learn how to rebound from injustice and anger . . . and start shooting from the heart.

As you may have gathered, Hoops of Steel is a basketball book. Now, I enjoy basketball quite a bit, and I’m proud to say I have gone to almost every single home basketball game (both men’s and women’s teams) at my university for the past 5 years. Men’s Division II champions in 2012! Anyway. Despite my interest in basketball and general coming-of-age stories, this book fell flat for me.

Hoops of Steel probably resonates with die-hard basketball players, especially more mature middle schoolers up through high school. The basketball jargon was too much for me to understand, and the problems faced by Jackson just weren’t…big enough. Oh, I’m sorry you’re on the bench but still playing sometimes. Oh, I’m sorry you blew off your girlfriend but fix the problem 2 pages later. And then the underlying issues of what happened to Jackson’s family and to Gerry at the end were underplayed (no pun intended). So I was pretty bored. But again, for kiddos who play basketball and are conscious about the way they look and act around girls, this book may be a winner.

The author is a teacher, and I enjoyed the bits about Gerry’s amazing teaching. I even liked the part about Gerry getting in trouble for making a girl mad, because these things happen all the time. A student lies about a teacher doing something inappropriate, and the teacher gets fired, sued, or blacklisted. It’s the reality, and it’s important that people know how unfair it is for teachers to live and work in these conditions.

Hoops of Steel is not ELL friendly because many of the sentences are fragments because they’re missing a subject. The author wrote this way because it’s how people talk and how Jackson things and thus narrates. And again, the vocabulary used to describe basketball is just too much.

I’m toying with the idea of getting a bunch of those colorful circle stickers used at garage sales and writing “PG-13” on them to place on books that have “mature content.” Of course, those books will just be snatched up quicker, but at least students will be warned. The way I see it, students should have some accountability in what they read, not just the teacher. If a student picks up a book with adult content and didn’t know about it, then the parents might be mad at the teacher. But if the student KNOWS he/she isn’t supposed to read those books and does so anyway, then it’s more the student’s fault.

Where am I going with this? If I follow through with this idea, Hoops of Steel would have one of those stickers. It’s got a few N-words (though each time the guy uses that word, he’s told off), and several references to body parts that ought to be under clothing for most of the day. And what’s with Angelo liking to walk around naked? So weird. The book has a good amount of swearing and a few F-bombs. All these things together, the content is better suited for high school, and the characters are in high school, too, so that makes sense.

Hoops of Steel is my fourth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.