Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan

Boy Meets BoyReading level: 6.3
Lexile: 730
Genre: Romance, LGBT
ELL-Friendly: Mostly
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

This is the story of Paul, a sophomore at a high school like no other: The cheerleaders ride Harleys, the homecoming queen used to be a guy named Daryl (she now prefers Infinite Darlene and is also the star quarterback), and the gay-straight alliance was formed to help the straight kids learn how to dance.

When Paul meets Noah, he thinks he’s found the one his heart is made for. Until he blows it. The school bookie says the odds are 12-to-1 against him getting Noah back, but Paul’s not giving up without playing his love really loud. His best friend Joni might be drifting away, his other best friend Tony might be dealing with ultra-religious parents, and his ex-boyfriend Kyle might not be going away anytime soon, but sometimes everything needs to fall apart before it can really fit together right.

David Levithan is a bit of a literary hero to me because he writes such fabulous gay characters. But that’s also because my experience with LGBT literature is fairly minimal. In any case, I read Boy Meets Boy because I love the author, even though Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was a bit of a bust for me. Boy Meets Boy is, in a lot of ways, a typical romance story. That part I didn’t care for very much because I’m not one for the romance genre as a whole. But what Boy Meets Boy does differently and spectacularly is create “a high school like no other.”

This story makes me wonder what our schools could be like if kids weren’t afraid to come out as gay to their friends, community, and family. With the freedom to do this, Levithan opens all sorts of doors, like straight boys having crushes on manly-quarterbacks-turned-girls and characters not tip-toeing around the “is he gay?” question and moving straight into business.

To throw a wrench into this little utopia, Paul’s friend Tony’s parents try to make him not gay anymore, which is something that happens all the time over here in the real world. Tony teaches us that even when parents try to change something about their child, it is out of love, even if it hurts. At least in this circumstance.

I would recommend this book to students who enjoy romance, whether or not they’re gay. It’s just a fun story about love and more importantly about friendship. What I took away from the story wasn’t the love between Paul and Noah but the friendship between Paul and all his friends and family. I might also recommend it to students who read books not just for the plot but for the writing. (Do those students even exist?) Levithan’s prose flows like poetry and is half the fun of reading his stories.

It’s more of a high school book because the characters are in high school, but it’s fine for upper middle school. I also don’t recall anything inappropriate unless parents think that any sort of gay content is inappropriate.

Finally, it is a coming-of-age story as Paul tries to figure out himself and his loves and his friends. These subjects relate to all adolescents, because LGBT books are for everyone.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and ParkReading level: 5.5 ish
Genre: Romance
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Goodreads summary:

Two misfits.
One extraordinary love.

Eleanor… Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough…Eleanor.

Park… He knows she’ll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There’s a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep promises…Park.

Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds—smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.

Everything about reading Eleanor & Park made me nervous. I tend to dislike romance stories to begin with, but mostly this book had a lot to live up to from its multiple awards to its apparently incredible author. I’m please to say that I have no regrets. Eleanor & Park is a gorgeous book through and through.

Just from reading the above Goodreads summary, you can get a sense of the poetic language. For most of the story, the plot is slow moving, the author focusing on small moments and examining them up close. She alternates perspectives but unlike Flipped (that’s the only example I can think of right now), it’s not the same scene told twice. Eleanor and Park take up where the other leaves off.

The romance is sweet, of course. Looking back, though, what I appreciated the most is the juxtaposition of Eleanor and Park’s families. Park has it all and takes it all for granted. Eleanor has no money and a struggling family and is very cognizant of how her background is different from Park’s. I can only hope that kids (or adults for that matter) who read this book take a moment to think about what they have and to be thankful for it, no matter how much or little. Throughout the story, Eleanor’s classmates bully her because she’s different, but perhaps if they knew how she lived and with whom, they would have treated her with respect. Here is another reminder to not judge anyone harshly because everybody is fighting their own battles.

Tina is one of those bullies (or so we’re led to believe), and although she never seems like a kind, good person, she comes around to Eleanor in the end. It’s always heartwarming when the bully makes a change for the better. Doing something kind is never wasted.

Because this book has won so many YA awards, I was surprised at the language. There’s a lot of swearing and some crass sexual phrases as well. For those reasons, I’d put a rated-R sticker on my book if I were to put it in my classroom library. It’s definitely geared more towards high school because of language and the age and situations of our characters, so I might keep it off the middle school shelf unless it’s 8th grade.

I realize now that I was so wrapped up in the book that I forgot to think about its suitability for ELLs. Now that the book is back at the library, I can’t go back and look, but my memory says it’s not ELL-friendly for the most part. It has a lot of references to bands and comics from the ’70s. While that may seem like a small detail, these conversations make up the bulk of Eleanor and Park’s conversations at the beginning of the story.

I’ve been asked if Eleanor & Park is worth reading and if it lives up to the hype. I would say yes. It’s not a book that will necessarily knock your socks off, but you’ll find yourself closing the book for a second and thinking, “Wow.” Read it slowly and savor it.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Nick and NorahReading level: 7.1
Lexile: 1020
Genre: Romance
ELL-Friendly: Not particularly
Library recommendation: high school

Scholastic’s summary:

It all starts when Nick asks Norah to be his girlfriend for five minutes. He only needs five minutes to avoid his ex-girlfriend, who’ s just walked in to his band’ s show. With a new guy. And then, with one kiss, Nick and Norah are off on an adventure set against the backdrop of New York City— and smack in the middle of all the joy, anxiety, confusion, and excitement of a first date.

This he said/she said romance is a sexy, funny roller coaster of a story about one date over one very long night, with two teenagers, both recovering from broken hearts, who are just trying to figure out who they want to be— and where the next great band is playing.

I’ve been meaning to read Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist for a few years, beginning when I discovered the amazing David Levithan. I had really high hopes but was left fairly disappointed. But, like I said with Let It Snow, teen romance isn’t really my thing, but it might be your thing, so take my opinions with a grain of salt.

The story is told through alternating viewpoints, which is pulled off beautifully with the audiobook I listened to. The narration is excellent. Another plus is that the voices of these two teenagers are incredibly realistic. Nick and Norah are heartbroken, not heartbroken, confused, heartbroken again, scared, adventurous, confused some more… Now that I am not a teenager and do not wish to relive that experience ever again, I wasn’t super intrigued by these characters. Because there isn’t a whole lot of action and most of the story is the inner thoughts of each character, the teenage introspection got to be a bit much. That said, the ultimate message is to take a leap of faith because life is scary, but you can’t live scared. But also don’t be stupid, but if you are (because you will make stupid decisions), learn from them and grow.

I will regretfully not be putting this book in my classroom library unless I maybe teach high school. This book has the most f-bombs (among other choice swear words) than any other book I can recall. And there’s some sort-of-sex scenes, which isn’t super graphic but is enough to potentially make parents uncomfortable/outraged. But, like I said, all this can be justified by the very teenage-ness of the whole book, and teenagers need books they can connect to. However, because of the excessive language and “adult content,” I would but a “rated R” sticker on it if it goes into the classroom at all. It might also wind up being one of those books that I reserve for a certain student who I feel would “get” it – maybe a reluctant teen reader with a broken heart.

It’s not particularly ELL-friendly because of the high lexile, a pretty sophisticated vocab, and references to pop culture and music. I can’t help but think that if readers know the major American curse words, they’re halfway to understanding all the words in the story. But I exaggerate…

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.

Free Four: Tobias Tells the Story – Veronica Roth

Free FourReading level: 5.2
Series: Divergent series book 1.5
Genre: Dystopian, romance
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Here’s the internal monologue of what happened when this book became available for download from the library (I was on a long waiting list): YES! But first I will work out and take a shower and eat breakfast. …but let’s download it just to be sure it works. …and let’s turn on the Kindle to make sure it downloaded. Eh, let’s just read the first few pages. Oh, it’s so short, let’s just keep going. Okay, done.

In this short story, Four/Tobias narrates the knife-throwing scene, and it reveals a softer side to his character as well as his personal problems with Dauntless. I learned that Tobias has perhaps a softer heart than I once thought (“My thoughts skip back to the night before, how touching her sent warmth into my hand and through the rest of me, though I was frozen with fear.”) and that he already has reservations about supporting his new faction. I loved reading his thoughts because we don’t get any of that in the series that’s narrated by Tris.

I wouldn’t go out of your way to buy it for the classroom because it’s nothing spectacular (although I did really enjoy it), and the series can do without this addendum. Fans of the Divergent series will probably read it, though, if it’s around.

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

The Hunger GamesReading level: 7
Series: The Hunger Games series book 1
Genre: Dystopian, romance
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

I read The Hunger Games trilogy all in one go a few years ago and was inspired to re-read all the books now that the Catching Fire movie is coming out in a few months. As I re-read The Hunger Games, I realized how much I had missed and simply forgotten by reading so quickly. As with the Divergent series, I read as fast as possible just to know what happened next – the mark of a great series! So re-reading was a treat as I compared the movie to the book and re-examined my thoughts about the character of Katniss, the purpose of the Hunger Games, and the love triangle of Katniss, Peeta, and Gale.

I was rather surprised by Katniss’ fragility and humanness. For some reason, I had made her into an infallible, tough-as-nails girl. This book made me appreciate her character as being so realistic. She’s a typical 16-year-old girl in that her feelings are confusing and she has very real fears. But she really is an incredible female role model: she’s smart, brave, adventurous, loyal, honest, and independent. If possible, I love her even more.

The romance between Katniss and Peeta continues to confuse me. Does Peeta really love Katniss? I know what happens to them in the end, but I was never sure if it was genuine. During my re-read, I paid close attention to small details regarding their feelings for one another, and whereas I doubted Peeta’s genuine love for Katniss, I’m pretty darn sure he does love her or at least always had a crush on her. Maybe his love confession was part of his strategy in the Hunger Games, but I don’t think he revealed his love just to make him (or Katniss) look good and to increase his chance at coming back alive.

This series has been banned in a lot of schools. For one, Haymitch is drunk most of the time, and that’s not a good thing for students to read, right? Well, drinking isn’t glorified, and it clearly gets in his way, not to mention contributes to his humiliation. Furthermore, Katniss and Peeta, our true heroes, are continually frustrated with Haymitch’s drinking. Once we get into Catching Fire and beyond, readers can see that he drinks to escape reality. It’s not just pointless and excessive drinking just because.

But really, the issue parents and administrators are having is that kids are killing each other in these books. The message here is that the government (the adults) are the real monsters, turning kids into killers for entertainment. The entire series, especially after the first book, is about rebellion and stopping the brutal murders of minors.

The killing scenes aren’t even that graphic. The only book that gave me nightmares when I was in middle school was Where the Red Fern Grows where one of the young boys gets hit with an axe and dies. I remember that scene fairly well even now, and, if my memory serves me well, none of the killing scenes in The Hunger Games were as graphic as that. The most gruesome of the scenes as where Katniss was trying to tend to Peeta’s leg. Furthermore, when Katniss kills anyone, she feels bad and continues to focus on the real enemy: the Capitol.

I think it’s important for this series to be in classrooms because kids love it. If it gets kids to read, especially reluctant readers, it has value. And as I said before, Katniss is a great female lead and role model – infinitely better than Bella in the Twilight series. And you know what? Scholastic says that the “interest level” is 6th grade. Not that Scholastic has the final word, but perhaps this company’s opinion can carry some weight.

Insurgent – Veronica Roth

InsurgentReading level: 5.4
Series: Divergent series book 2
Genre: Dystopian, romance
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

I don’t even…where to begin…this book…

SO AMAZING.

In no other book have I wanted the couple to be together so badly as in Insurgent. The romance was perfectly written, I think. As much as I was frustrated when Tris and Tobias had fights and I was afraid that they would split up, I appreciate how realistic the situation was. I love how each Tris and Tobias value honesty and how frustrated they get at each other while loving each other the entire time. The pre-execution Tris is a perfect example of Toni Morrison’s quote in Song of Solomon, “He can’t value you more than you value yourself.” I didn’t really understand what Tobias meant when he said he and Tris would be through if she kept throwing her life away until I recalled this quote. Only when she realized her life was worth living did she and Tobias get back on the same page. Beautiful.

The downside to my being so obsessed with Tris and Tobias’ relationship is that I focused more on them than on what they were fighting against sometimes. What can I say, they stole my heart. Or maybe just Tobias…

At the end of Divergent, Tris shoots and kills her friend Will. She spends the entirety of Insurgent being haunted by her decision and action, despite Will having been under a simulation and the fact that he would have certainly killed Tris had she not killed him first. This situation is in direct contrast to that of Ender’s Game when Ender kills a whole slew of people (and buggers) but doesn’t really beat himself up too badly, and everybody excuses him. Tris makes no excuses and always holds herself accountable.

But then one may counter that Tobias is a killing machine. And he sort of is. He reminds me of Gale from The Hunger Games series, where he’s more radical in needing to do what is “necessary” to dispose of the societal evil. In case you haven’t guessed, I love the character of Tobias, minus his willingness to kill. He’s the right amount of perfect and flawed, scared and brave, loving and hard-skinned.

Reasons to keep this off classroom shelves include: too much violence and excessive kissing. I don’t think either was too extreme, but if parents have an issue with The Hunger Games series, they’ll have an issue with this series too, probably – which would be a real shame because it’s SO GOOD.