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.

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.

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.

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

wintergirlsReading level: 4.5
Lexile: 730
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: High school

Lia and her friend Cassie are wintergirls: skinny, frail, and ill due to their eating disorders. When Cassie leaves dozens of ignored voicemails on Lia’s phone before Cassie is found dead, Lia is haunted by her best friend’s ghost that encourages her to eat less and lose more weight until bulimia begins to kill her, too. All the while, Lia is burdened by those voicemails that may have saved Cassie’s life if she had picked up the phone.

As you might expect from the brief synopsis, Wintergirls is a haunting story. Laurie Halse Anderson does an excellent job portraying what goes through Lia’s head and how she is convinced by her own thoughts, message boards, and Cassie’s ghost to continue starving herself even through she knows she is hurting her body. It’s easy for so many of us to just say that Lia is a stupid teenage girl caught up in her appearance, but bulimia is a disorder for a reason. It’s all-consuming,  ever-present, and, as we see through the strike-through text, Lia is in constant battle with herself.

Lia as a character is not a girl I particularly like, maybe because I can’t identify with her much, and maybe because so much of her identity, thoughts, and actions are about eating, not eating,and losing weight. It seems to me like Anderson focused more on the issue rather than the character, which I don’t see as a criticism at all, because I don’t think Lia liked herself very much, so it’s difficult for the reader to like her either.

Talking about having this book in the classroom is tricky. It’s got some foul language as well as graphic images and descriptions throughout, which makes the book realistic and powerful but also not necessarily appropriate for all students. I wouldn’t have Wintergirls in my classroom library for any ages younger than 7th grade, for one. If I teach 7th grade and up, I’d put a pg-14 sticker on it. While some parents might be mad that their child read the book, every one of my students will know that graphic books have warning stickers, just like mature video games and movies. They should only read books their parents would let them read. I would also argue that most if not all girls struggle with their body image even if they don’t have an eating disorder or know someone who does. Wintergirls does not encourage girls to starve themselves. Rather, it explains the horrors that encompass people who have bulimia and anorexia. More than anything, this book made me want to not be hard on myself for having my pants fit a bit tighter than they should or for eating a cookie or two. Wintergirls made me want to exercise and eat healthy foods but not worry so much, because the last person I want to turn into is Lia.

Of course, Wintergirls may also be a powerful book for girls (or boys) who struggle with bulimia or other body image issues or know someone who is struggling themselves. The low reading level makes it ELL-friendly, although there are some message board posts written with incorrect grammar and without punctuation, but most kids these days are whizzes at interpreting and writing this type of internet-speak.

 

Doing Time Online by Jan Siebold

doing time online

Reading level: 4.1
Lexile: 510
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Elementary school

Goodreads summary:

Twelve-year-old Mitchell got involved with the wrong kid this past summer, and the prank they played led to an elderly woman’s injury. His “sentence” is to chat online with a nursing home resident twice a week for the next month. Mitch isn’t thrilled at first, but soon he has a new friend–Wootie Hayes–who helps him face the truth.

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I bought this book. Maybe I thought there was greatness in the pages to redeem the cover. Or maybe I tried to see past the incorrect use of bracketing. Either way, I can’t say that I made a great decision. The book isn’t terrible, and it could definitely be loved by elementary-aged kiddos (see reading level), but I’m not sure if it’s got much of a place in a middle school class.

To begin with, the book is outdated. Published in 2002, online chatting was just becoming a “thing,” and it was obviously the coolest when Siebold wrote this story. Next, the conflict is over so quickly, and Mitchell is such a good kid that he doesn’t really need any convincing to do the right thing.

Doing Time Online is well-written, and Mitchell’s voice comes out well, but I think the story is so much about teaching a lesson (do the right thing) that there’s not much of a chance to get to know and love the characters.

Because it’s written simply and has a simple message, it might be a good book for middle school/lower high school ELLs if they’re familiar with online chatting. Do today’s kids even know what instant messaging is?? :0

Doing Time Online is my thirty-fifth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It by Lisa Shanahan

the sweet terrible gloriousReading level: 6.5 (ish)
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Gemma Stone is convinced that it’s always unseemly to chuck a birkett and that it’s actually insane to chuck one in front of a complete stranger. But that was before she fell in love with a boy who barely knows she exists, before she auditioned for the school play, before she met the family of freaks her sister Debbie is marrying into, before the unpredictable Raven De Head took an interest in her, and before she realised that at the right time and for the right reason, a birkett could be a beautiful thing.

I’m not the biggest fan of chick lit, so I was wary initially. As it turns out, while it can certainly be classified as chick lit, it is legitimately funny and heart-wrenching and deep. My biggest issue is with that cover: it has nothing to do with the story…

It took me a good while to get into the story and to love Gemma, our narrator. Gemma is an observer. She discusses what she sees, often as if she is separate from it. Unlike Dimple in Born Confused who is incredibly introspective, Gemma seems to let most things pass before her eyes. This type of narration was annoying to me because she felt so flat, but then I realized that Gemma is a lot like me, because she tries to separate herself from crazy and stressful events happening around her. Near the end, we get a much better sense of who she is.

Speaking of the ending – I turned the page and the story was over! Oh, another part of stereotypical chick lit that I dislike is the romance, but this story stopped before things could get too soppy, which I both appreciated and was frustrated about because I wanted to know what happened!

This story teaches a few, excellent life lessons, such as not judging people based on their background, family, or past actions (i.e. Raven and the De Head family). It’s also about taking risks and going out of your comfort zone.

The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It is a high school book for several reasons: Gemma and her friends are in high school, there are curse words peppered throughout (though not at all excessively), and there are brief mentions of various body parts, but nothing is described in detail. That said, mature middle schoolers might enjoy it, too. The author Lisa Shanahan is Australian, and the story takes place in Australia, so the vocabulary is quite a bit different to the point where it really slowed down my reading at times. For that reason, it’s not ELL friendly, but I think it’d be okay for strong readers who are good at using context clues and/or know to skip over non-essential vocabulary they don’t know.

This book isn’t leveled with Scholastic, so my best guess is that it’s at about 6.5 (6th grade, half way through the year), if not a little higher.

The Sweet, Terrible, Glorious Year I Truly, Completely Lost It is my thirty-second book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Petey by Ben Mikaelsen

PeteyReading level: 6.1
Lexile: 740
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

In 1922, at the age of two, Petey’s distraught parents commit him to the state’s insane asylum, unaware that their son is actually suffering from severe cerebral palsy. Bound by his wheelchair and struggling to communicate with the people around him, Petey finds a way to remain kind and generous despite the horrific conditions in his new “home.” Through the decades, he befriends several caretakers but is heartbroken when each eventually leaves him. Determined not to be hurt again, he vows to no longer let hope of lifelong friends and family torment him.

That changes after he is moved into a nursing home and meets a young teen named Trevor Ladd; he sees something in the boy and decides to risk friendship one last time. Trevor, new to town and a bit of a loner, is at first weary of the old man in the wheelchair. But after hearing more of his story, Trevor learns that there is much more to Petey than meets the eye.

Petey is an extraordinary story that has the potential to change lives. One teen on goodreads wrote in her review that she used to bully kids with disabilities, but she stopped once she read this book. Even if you’re not a bully yourself, it’ll prompt you to think differently about people with disabilities and the impact that a single person can have on another’s life. In addition, Petey’s character is one that will stick with me for a long time. If I can be as kind and upbeat as him, then I will have lived a great life.

Although the cover looks pretty dull, I was interested in the story from the very start. It isn’t told through Petey’s voice but through a 3rd person narrative that describes what Petey is thinking and feeling. This narration is done expertly and realistically. I can’t think of another story in which a person with disabilities is both the highlight of the story and where the reader could know that character’s thoughts.

My only complaint is that the story is a little too “fluffy,” mostly at the end, to the point that it isn’t necessarily realistic, but it was always very touching (have some tissues on hand).

It is mostly a middle level book (due to grade level. Plus Trevor is in 8th grade) but I could see high schoolers enjoying it as well. It isn’t particularly ELL-friendly because of complex, descriptive vocabulary. However, this book would work well (especially at the upper elementary or middle level) as a class read-aloud if studying tolerance, friendship, disabilities, bullying, hardship…

There isn’t much action in the story, but it is definitely intriguing. I would recommend Petey to two types of students: those who are quick to judge and could be taught a lesson from this story; and those who are patient, careful readers who open their hearts to fabulous characters such as Petey and Trevor

Petey is my twenty-ninth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

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