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.

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Sky Jumpers by Peggy Eddleman

Sky JumpersReading level: 5th ish?
Series: Sky Jumpers book 1
Genre: Dystopian, science fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

12-year-old Hope lives in White Rock, a town struggling to recover from the green bombs of World War III. The bombs destroyed almost everything that came before, so the skill that matters most in White Rock—sometimes it feels like the only thing that matters—is the ability to invent so that the world can regain some of what it’s lost.

But Hope is terrible at inventing and would much rather sneak off to cliff dive into the Bomb’s Breath—the deadly band of air that covers the crater the town lives in—than fail at yet another invention.

When bandits discover that White Rock has invented priceless antibiotics, they invade. The town must choose whether to hand over the medicine and die from disease in the coming months or to die fighting the bandits now. Hope and her friends, Aaren and Brock, might be the only ones who can escape through the Bomb’s Breath and make the dangerous trek over the snow-covered mountain to get help.

Sky Jumpers is a pretty great middle level, dystopian story. The premise and setting is interesting right off the bat: post-WWIII, deadly Bomb’s Breath, few modern inventions, a secluded community… I enjoyed learning about the history and issues facing White Rock, although I would have liked to have seen more mystery aside from Brock’s “mysterious” background…which we learn about in no time at all.

Hope, our narrator, is simply amazing – brave, smart, and a great friend. I really enjoyed her voice. I liked the end, especially, where she (being 12) realizes that her strengths may not lie with inventing but in something else – something her society tends to overlook. This theme spoke loud and clear to me as I struggle to find the “right” path and career moves now that I’m done with school and student teaching. More than anything in this story, Hope’s message will stick with me, and it would do well for students to think about it as well.

Sky Jumpers is the first in a series that is currently in the works. The first book ends with enough finality that I didn’t feel I needed to rush off and read the sequel, but there are enough unknowns to keep me interested in the rest of Hope’s story.

Unfortunately I was a bit bored with parts of the book, leading me to rate it 3/5 stars on goodreads. I felt pretty “meh” about a good chunk of the action and wanted more to happen and more mystery to keep me wondering. That aside, the book has gotten excellent reviews from many readers, so snatch this book up if you have a chance.

It’s definitely a middle level book with the main character being 12 and the simplicity of the plot. It’s ELL-friendly if students know some key words such as “bomb,” “bandit,” and “invention.” The reading level is my best guess because the book is not on record with Scholastic, and I don’t have the hard copy of the book in front of me to run through Word to get the approximate reading level.

Sky Jumpers is my ninth book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

The Time Hackers by Gary Paulsen

The Time HackersReading level: 5.6
Lexile: 880
Genre: Science fiction, adventure
ELL-Friendly: Mostly
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

You ever open your locker and find that some joker has left something really weird inside? Seventh-grader Dorso Clayman opens his locker door to find a dead body. Thirty seconds later it disappears. It’s not the first bizarre thing that has appeared in his locker and then vanished. Something’s going on.

Somebody has decided to make Dorso and his buddy Frank the target of some strange techno-practical jokes. The ultimate gamesters have hacked into the time line, and things from the past are appearing in the present. Soon, the jokes aren’t funny anymore—they’re dangerous. Dorso and Frank have got to beat the time hackers at their own game by breaking the code, before they get lost in the past themselves.

The good:

The dialogue between Frank and Dorso (who names their kid Dorso?) is funny and witty. The plot is fast-paced and fairly engaging. I think this book could be really interesting for middle school sci-fi fans.

Bringing historical events and figures to the present as holograms sounds AMAZING. C’mon scientists, make this a reality!

As a cat lover, I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes of Darling dressing the cat up in outfits. It was totally unnecessary to the storyline, but I got a kick out of it.

The first few pages are fantastic: Dorso opens his school locker and finds a dead body, but he hardly reacts. And the reader is like, “WHAT IS GOING ON? I MUST READ MORE.” I bet kids would be hooked if the teacher read the first pages out loud as part of a book talk.

The bad:

Why does Frank obsess over seeing naked female historical figures? It really is an obsession to the point that it’s just…too much. It’s not inappropriate, per se, but Frank’s constant mentioning of seeing naked women is obnoxious. I don’t care if that’s what all 12 year old boys are thinking about; they can keep it inside their heads.

I couldn’t get into the characters much. I thought they were funny, but that was about it. The book was so short that it was more about the plot and less about the characters, so it wasn’t a huge deal as these boys put themselves in danger. I just didn’t care.

Speaking of danger, these boys were trying to stop the demise of the universe, but I still couldn’t get into it. I guess I just didn’t understand what the gamesters/hackers were doing. I mean, I understood it, but why would anyone risk so much to play a game? Silly.

What even happened at the end? I just… I’m no sci-fi expert, but it seems like The Time Hackers was too simplistic and short for what it was trying to do. A longer, more in-depth book may have gotten me more involved with the characters and plot.

Anywho, the vocab is fine for ELLs, although the book requires high comprehension for the reader to understand the intricacies of what’s going on.

This is my second book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneReading level: 9.5
Genre: Science fiction, adventure
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune–and remarkable power–to whoever can unlock them.

There is a used bookstore in my college town that leaves free books in boxes outside of the store. Among the outdated computer manuals and self-help books, there is an occasional gem. This is one of those gems. I was excited to snatch Ready Player One, but Husband was even more excited.

Now, you’ll remember that the last time Husband was excited about a book and wanted me to read it, it was Ender’s Game. Did not turn out well. Needless to say, I was apprehensive about this one.

I almost gave up, actually. An conversation I had went like this:

Me: I don’t think I can keep going. I’m on page 60 and nothing is happening.

Husband: WHAT. Don’t give up. Let me see. Literally on the next page, things start to happen.

Me: Fine. Oh, there’s the excitement. Never mind.

I did truly enjoy Ready Player One despite it being about video games and a time period that I was too young to remember (the ’80s). But you guys, I actually played Zork on a Windows 95. Anyway, I’m also not a fan of sci-fi, but I got into this one.  I think that both the character of Wade and the plot are quite well done, and that’s what kept me going despite some boring parts. Wade is your typical unpopular geek, but early on, we learn he’s exceptionally smart (if obsessively so), and not to mention pretty brave and selfless.

I also appreciated that Art3mis is a girl in a gamer world, and she’s a super good gamer, too. It would have been easy for Cline to not include women at all (which he almost did), and I wish he would have built up her awesomeness. Like Husband admitted, Art3mis turns into more of a love interest near the middle of the book and never recovers.

Spoiler:

Aech is black and lesbian. Maybe it was Cline trying to be inclusive (killing three birds with one stone) and tacked that twist on, or maybe that’s how he always saw Aech. Either way, props for having a second (the second of two) female character be black and lesbian. What I thought was brave, especially coming from a white man, was Cline’s having Aech explain why she chose to create a white, male avatar: white men have the most power in society simply because of their gender and skin color.

This book is pretty popular with middle schoolers despite it not being entirely appropriate at times. There is lots of swearing and several f-bombs. There’s an awkward description of virtual sex and some other things I’m not going to talk about. Those descriptions are brief and not too graphic, but it’s enough that I wouldn’t read the book aloud in class.

The tone and vocabulary of the book is pretty high level and sophisticated. The vocabulary in particular is complex and includes lots of made up and technical terms, making the book not appropriate for low readers or ELLs. It does offer a challenge to middle schoolers and 9th graders.

I would recommend Ready Player One to kiddos who have high reading skills, like video games, and enjoy snarky narrators. It’s difficult to explain the niche this book fits into. I’ve been typing out an explanation but keep deleting, so I’ll just leave it there.

This is my first book of the 2014 TBR Pile Reading Challenge hosted by Bookish.

Chaos Walking Series – Patrick Ness

chaos walkingReading level:
The Knife of Never Letting Go: 5.6
The Ask and the Answer: 4.7
Monsters of Men: 8.6
Series: Chaos Walking
Genre: Adventure, science fiction
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

As I write this post, I am at the beginning of Monsters of Men. I can’t say I loved this series because it is so cruel and violent. It’s not for the faint of heart. I mean, kids are fighting for their lives page after page and that kind of makes me sad. But that’s just me.

However, the books are well-written and fairly well paced, although the plot could move a little quicker at points, I think. I anticipate that boys would enjoy these books more than girls, although Viola is an incredible female character because she’s downright brave and brilliant. The characters, both heroes and villains, are well-developed and you can’t but help loving Todd and Viola while hating the Mayor with your entire being.

Despite it being violent at times, I don’t foresee anything in these books that would prompt outrage from parents.

Definitely a set of books I’d like to have in my classroom.

Edit: As I look over this post, I realize how much it’s lacking, which is basically everything. Yikes. I want to add a bit more and say that these 3 books are a critical look at how we humans treat each other and our environment, and how we manipulate one another. The only truth the reader knows was that Ben and Todd love each other and that Todd and Viola love each other too. It’s a reminder to hang on to those dear people in your life but to also embrace other people who are different from you (i.e. the “alien” spackle).

The way the spackle communicate is beautiful. I still don’t exactly understand it, but it’s like they communicated with each other and the world by…I don’t know…telepathy? They were so connected to it all, every joy and every death of each living thing. And then that way of being is contrasted by the humans who destroy and kill and lie. The irony, of course, is that the humans reached this new planet and immediately thought they were better, more superior, and smarter than the life forms already there. Sound familiar (*cough* colonization *cough*)?

The character of Mayor Prentiss is so…wonderfully evil. At times I wanted to trust and believe him. I still can’t get over how well he is written to be so manipulative, much like dictators of our past and present, so much like everyday politicians.

Davey Prentiss got to me too. What a terrible kid, but…was he really? I hated him up until the end of the series (can’t remember when one book ended and the other began), but I couldn’t help but take all that back when I realized why he thought and felt and acted the way he did. With a father like the Mayor, who could blame him? I enjoyed witnessing his transformation from a total jerk to being an acceptable human being, showing readers that the worst of us can change if they’re given a chance and a friend.

I hope someone names their dog after Manchee, that ruddy good dog.