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.

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.

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…

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

city of emberReading level: 5.1
Lexile: 680
Series: Book of Ember, book 1
Genre: Dystopian
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Many hundreds of years ago, the city of Ember was created by the Builders to contain everything needed for human survival. It worked…but now the storerooms are almost out of food, crops are blighted, corruption is spreading through the city and worst of all—the lights are failing. Soon Ember could be engulfed by darkness….

But when two children, Lina and Doon, discover fragments of an ancient parchment, they begin to wonder if there could be a way out of Ember. Can they decipher the words from long ago and find a new future for everyone? Will the people of Ember listen to them?

Our main characters Lina and Doon live in a less-than-ideal city (their whole world) where there is no sun, and all light comes from electricity. Apparently there is no sky, and the city if self-contained while everything beyond the lighted areas are unknown. We learn little bits and pieces about how Ember is different from where we live today, and my favorite part of the book was the world building because it’s some of the few details the author lets us figure out by ourselves.

The City of Ember is similar to Divergent where the outside is unknown but we know there’s something out there that may or may not be better. The City of Ember is also similar to The Giver where all kids are assigned a job to contribute to the small, artificial society. Ember is less dark (no pun intended) and more juvenile in comparison but it has the same sense of mystery and complexities of how the city functions.

There’s nothing particularly exceptional about Lina and Doon, but as they risk more and more to find a way out of Ember, they make themselves exceptional. What I don’t like about them is that Doon overcomes his dislike of Lina very quickly while Lina gets over the death of a certain family member I will not name (spoilers…) too quickly to be realistic. In essence, the characters have likeable traits but the way they interact with each other and form relationships is nothing memorable or touching.

I can definitely see kids liking this book. It’s a quick, easy, intriguing read, but it is for the younger audiences of upper elementary to lower middle school. The simplicity of the plot and writing caused me to rate it 3 out of 5 stars, and I am left feeling pretty “meh” about the whole experience. The City of Ember ends on a significant cliffhanger, but my lack of enthusiasm about this book and goodreads reviewers’ falling ratings of all following books lead me to not pursue the rest of the series.

This book could be pretty easy to talk up to boys and girls because the premise really is interesting if not executed in an elegant manner (which is okay because it’s written for kids). It’s ELL-friendly, and I would recommend it to young or struggling readers whose reading levels aren’t high enough to tackle other popular dystopian novels (Divergent, for example).

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.

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.

 

Animal Farm by George Orwell

animal farmReading level: 9.0
Lexile: 1170
Genre: Fable, satire
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: High school

Orwell wrote Animal Farm as commentary on the Russian Revolution, and each of the characters can be compared to an actual person in that time period. Even separate from the historical context, this story is much like 1984 in that Orwell reflects critically on the state of politics and the antics of politicians and ignorant people throughout the world. In Animal Farm, the animals drive out the horrible farmer and lead a democratic, animal-centric life. Slowly, the pigs take charge, one more than others, so that by the end, the pigs are indistinguishable from humans and they’re right back where they started.

I have been burned out on YA lit lately (blasphemy, I know), so I opted to read some adult or at least more “sophisticated” literature in preparation for a YA reading marathon this summer. I had read Animal Farm in middle school because it was short and looked funny, but I didn’t truly understand it until I read it again as an adult.

Wikipedia can tell you all you need to know about how the characters in the book are actually about actual historical figures (Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin), and for a while I thought that Animal Farm would really need to be taught alongside a history unit on the Russian Revolution. However, after some thought and looking at teaching materials, I don’t think this is the case. Even without any of that historical context, Animal Farm is still a striking commentary on how leaders gain and keep power and how the masses are fooled and mistreated throughout history and around the world. This book can help high schoolers learn to think critically about what they are told and “learn” and how to be a conscious voter and thinker.

I did a simple internet search for “teaching Animal Farm” and found lots of information, so I will not think up my own lesson plans or ways to use this book in the classroom. But here is one link from Penguin (the book publisher) that has a fairly detailed, if slightly simplistic, unit plan: Penguin’s Animal Farm Unit Plan.

I’m wondering now, though, about the benefits to teaching Animal Farm over 1984. If one were to teach Animal Farm without the historical context of the Russian Revolution, the important messages seem to be almost identical to those in 1984, though it has been many years since I’ve read it. One advantage is that Animal Farm is very short and might be better for struggling readers and ELLs. Less time reading means more time discussing and researching. Also, because Animal Farm is so short and written fairly simply, it would be easier to stop after each short chapter and talk about the lies and deceptions that happened. Because the character development and plot is not as complex as in 1984, there is, again, more time to dissect and discuss the blatant lies and trickery happening.

It’s certainly a book for high school students, and it’s also one of those pesky classics that ought to be read as a class and discussed in order to fully understand and appreciate it. I feel like I could learn a lot more about it and am no expert as of now, although I take comfort in there being plenty of teaching resources available.

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