"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." Albert Einstein

31 March 2014

COUNTDOWN: The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand

This week's question from The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand, asks which scenes from a book you'd want to experience.  Sometimes I get so involved in the books I read that I forget that I'm not the one experiencing what happens.  Nonetheless, in no particular order, here are my ten scenes:

  1. I would love to be Harry Potter during his first trip to Diagon Alley in The Sorcerer's Stone
  2. I would like to be Bean when Ender finishes his "final exam" in Ender's Game, since Bean was probably the only child in that room who understood what was at stake. 
  3. I would like to be Lucy from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when she first stumbles through the wardrobe into the eternal winter and meets Mr. Tumnus. 
  4. I would want my wife to join me and we could replace Zoe and Vanessa in Sing You Home and have our wedding in a bowling alley during an epic snowstorm.  Our wedding was, by necessity, done in another state and none of our friends and family attended, so I could deal with a bowling alley location if we could be surrounded by friends and family.
  5. I would love to be one of the flying frogs in Tuesday.  Maybe the ones who sneak into the guy's house and watch his TV on the sly. 
  6. I would like to be Principal Rabbski in Princess Labelmaker to the Rescue when she fights back against FunTime and tells the students she's not going to be a principal anymore.
  7. I would want to be one of the chaperones at the dance in Ungifted when Noah, in his wrestler's "outfit," jumps off a speaker and rescues Tin Man Metallica Squarepants. 
  8. I would like to be a fly on the wall watching and listening to Momo and General Goodtimes in Beauty Queens.
  9. I would want to be Harper Price in Rebel Belle when she picks up her boyfriend (who outweighs her by at least seventy-five pounds) and throws him across the school yard. On accident. 
  10. I would like to be the owners of Binky the Space Cat when he is confronted with the new foster cat (whom he thinks is a spy). Watching Binky would be ridiculously entertaining.
What about you? Are there any scenes you wish you could insert yourself into?

If you missed the other installments in the series, here are links to Part One and Part Two

Handbook for Dragon Slayers

Haskell, Merrie. Handbook for Dragon Slayers. HarperCollins, 2013. 

Tilda is a princess. Tilda also has a foot that is turned oddly, which makes it difficult for her to walk unaided and also causes her a fair amount of pain. When her cousin kidnaps her and plans to take over her family's kingdom, Tilda has to assume the role of hero and savior even though she has never ridden a horse or done anything remotely heroic in her life.

This book was really adorable. I love Tilda's character as well as her handmaiden and the apprentice who follows her around. I really enjoyed the fact that Tilda transformed into a dragon but chose to become human again (twisted foot and all) so that she could resume her duties as a princess.

Recommended for: middle grade, tweens
Red Flags: minor fantasy violence
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

Read-alikes: Princess Ben, Dealing with Dragons, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

28 March 2014

Shh! Or how I stopped enforcing quiet in my library

Before I started library school, I spent six years teaching English at a small private academy on the island of Guam. Because of the small student body, my teaching schedule changed every year, but for the most part I taught 7th grade English, usually three sections of 7th grade English every day.  After six years and well over one thousand students passing through my classroom doors, I learned a few things about middle school students:

  • They are very creative.  My students were old enough to have a wide variety of interests, and they loved to incorporate those interests into the assignments I gave them. For example, I had one seventh grade student complete his poetry notebook exclusively with poems about surfing. 
  • They have a lot of energy.  My students had just transitioned from elementary school, where they had regular recess and bathroom breaks, to junior high, where they were shuttled from one class to another and required to sit still for forty-five minutes at a time.  Many of my students suffered from Recess Deficit Disorder.  They were perfectly capable of focusing in class and working, but they had too much energy trapped inside to do that unless they had some time to run and play.
  • They aren't sure who they are.  I had students come in one day acting very mature, only to come in the next day whining like a toddler. Some students went through phases where they asked to be called by a particular nickname, only to drop it the next week when it was no longer wanted.  These kids are trapped between being children and being teenagers, and oftentimes they will act like both in the span of fifteen minutes.  I taught one class where one student lost a tooth and another student started her first period in the same hour
  • They love their electronic devices, but they love them for the connection they provide.  My students relished the days I let them play board games in class, not just because it was a break from grammar and literature, but because they got to spend time with their friends. Many of my students didn't have the opportunity to interact with each other outside of school, so they were glad for any time they had during the school day to chat with their friends. Even now, I more often see students gathered around a single screen rather than sitting next to each other texting back and forth. 
As a teacher, I decided early on that it was more important for my students to leave my class knowing that English is interesting and doable than being able to recite the fourteen uses of the comma or being able to differentiate between transitive and intransitive verbs.  I wanted them to be able to enter another English classroom the next year with confidence, a positive attitude, and a willingness to do their best on any assignment, no matter how difficult it may seem.  I wanted English accessible to all of my students. 

Now that I am a librarian, I have taken a similar approach to my library. If my students leave this school after 8th grade knowing that the library is a place they can go to find information, and if they have begun to develop a love of reading, whether it be sports biographies, manga, or 500+ page fantasy novels, then I have done my job.  I want my students to know that librarians are there to help them and that they are not scary cardigan-wearing shushers of humanity.

That means I spend a lot of time around what I call "loosely controlled chaos."  I do not insist that students be silent in the library, because that would turn me into a silence enforcer instead of a purveyor of information and provider of great books. I do encourage students to come to the library often to play board games, to research on the computer, to work together on Minecraft projects, to gawk at the displays I put up, to learn how to fly paper airplanes, to build with LEGOs, and, yes, to check out books. 

Students attempting to lodge a paper airplane in the ceiling tiles.
For example, last week there were some students flying paper airplanes in the library. Rather than tell them to stop or sending them out, I pulled out our paper airplanes books and set them a challenge: build a plane that will get stuck in the ceiling tiles.  Anyone who can throw a plane up to the ceiling and get it lodged there will earn a free book at the book fair.  The students had a designated area for throwing, and although they were not (yet) successful, they left the library talking about trying new designs over the weekend.  What started out as a mostly harmless pursuit turned into a research project. 

The week before I had a student walking around the library holding a water bottle and the largest atlas in our collection.  He used his "holy book" and "holy water" to cast the demons out of the library.  Was it weird? Yes. Was it bothering anyone else? No. Instead of telling him to sit down and be quiet, I thanked him for exorcising the library demons.  Now that student (and anyone who witnessed him) knows that it's okay to be a little bit weird in the library.  Next week he'll probably be done with his exorcisms, but he won't be done using the library. 

Come to my library during a typical lunch hour and you will see a room that barely resembles a library. I have had students create elaborate LEGO structures and use LEGO catapults to bombard them. I have had students spend their entire lunch break looking at books about One Direction and singing their songs together.  I have a group of students who regularly come to the library and play Sorry! or Connect Four.  It's not obscenely loud, but neither is it completely silent.  The library has become a place where students can learn, can try new things, and can connect with each other.   For an hour before school and two thirty-minute lunch periods during the day, I quiet my inner shusher and let the students explore.  Instead of being a bastion of silence, the library is a bastion of exploration, connection, research, discussion, and relaxation. 

American Born Chinese

Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. First Second, 2006.

I read this book because I really enjoyed Boxers and Saints, but I didn't find this one as enjoyable at all. There were multiple storylines which were difficult to separate, the one kid's cousin who visits from China I found simply appalling - he was so stereotyped it wasn't even funny anymore. I can't speak to the experience of growing up in a different culture, but this book was simply not my favorite. That being said, the art is very nicely done, the colors are appealing, and it is a Printz award winner.

Recommended for: fans of multicultural lit and graphic novels
Red Flags: none
Overall Rating: 4/5 stars

27 March 2014


Knisley, Lucy. Relish: My Life in the Kitchen. Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, 2013.

This book tells the story of Lucy and her love of gourmet food. Interspersed throughout the memoir are recipes for various items mentioned in the story. Similar to Bechdel's Fun Home, this book is a memoir with no discernible plot or storyline to follow.

The art in this book is appropriate to the story. The story itself is mildly interesting, and the recipes are genuine. (My wife made one of them for dinner last night.) I don't see this book being popular with my junior high patrons, but high school students and new adults would definitely enjoy it.

Recommended for: young adults, adults
Red Flags: none
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

26 March 2014

Mother, Mother

Zailckas, Koren. Mother, Mother. Crown, 2013.

I don't even know where to start in my description of this book. The mom is a narcissistic nutcase who lives her life through her first child and lies and manipulates everyone so she can get her own way. When her oldest daughter gets pregnant, she guilts her into having an abortion and then guilts her into suicide for having an abortion. Then she covers up the girl's disappearance and tells everyone she ran away. Since daughter #2 is the black sheep of the family, the mom has her committed to a mental hospital so she can work on her latest project: Child #3. Her son, who is 12, has been diagnosed with Asperger's and a seizure disorder (after visits to three specialists because the first two wouldn't diagnose him), so mom home schools him, brushes and flosses his teeth, BATHES him, and picks out his clothes. Oh, and the dad turns to alcohol to avoid the entire family dynamic in all its awfulness.

This story is told in alternating perspectives of the two living children, so I would label this book as one with an unreliable narrator, too, since one kid's in a mental institution and the other one is being manipulated by the mother so that he lies to the police about how he was injured and doesn't know how to choose his own clothes for the day.

I hated reading about how horrible this mother was. I kept waiting for something awful to happen to her, and I finished the book just because I wanted to find out if everyone was able to escape her insanity (and to find out what really happened to Daughter #1 since we already knew the mom was a pathological liar). Crazy stuff. My students would LOVE this book, since they like books about people in horrible situations. I would not reread this one, since the mom drives me crazy, but it was very well-written.

Recommended for: young adults, fans of psychological thrillers
Red Flags: Dad's an alcoholic, Daughter #2 smokes while she's in the mental institution and does drugs beforehand, Daughter #1 commits suicide, Mom is uber-abusive to the entire family and drugs the dad and tries to kill Daughter #2, the son describes his masturbation habit
Overall Rating: 4/5 stars

Read-alikes: Broken by C.J. Lyons

25 March 2014

War Brothers

McKay, Sharon. War Brothers: The Graphic Novel. Annick Press, 2013.

This book tells the story of child soldiers in Uganda who were forced to join the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The problem of child soldiers and their recovery is an issue in many African countries, and this book tells the story in a sensitive and appropriate manner.

I can see why this book won an award this year. The art is appropriate for the story, and the book depicts the horrors of child soldiers without being overly graphic. When I find that money-tree, I'm going to purchase a copy of this book for my library.

Recommended for: teens and adults
Red Flags: lots of violence, mentions of rape
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

Read-Alike: Chanda's Wars by Allan Stratton

24 March 2014

COUNTDOWN: The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand

One of the fun parts of the book The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand is the fact that the librarians can read things out of books, similar to the way Mo in Inkheart can read characters out of books. The librarians read out food, and one particular character often reads out strange creatures; I think she might be a Hagrid-in-training.

As part of the Ninja Librarians Recon Team, I was asked to choose ten things that I would read out of books if I could.  Wow, that's a really hard thing to choose!  I've been wracking my brains all day, and I think I've finally come up with a decent list.  In no particular order, here are the ten items I would read out from books:

  1. Hermione's bag from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  Talk about solving storage problems! I would never have to lug 30 lbs of cat litter up the steps to my apartment, or 30 lbs of laundry down to the laundry room.  I could store ALL THE THINGS in there and have them at my immediate disposal! If I could only read out one thing, this would probably be the thing.
  2. Bob, the talking skull from the Harry Dresden books.  Because when it comes to advice, you can't beat a talking skull. 
  3. A hoverboard from Westerfeld's Uglies series.  Not only could I save on gas, but I could out-cool the kids who park their skateboards in my library. 
  4. I'd find a book about Doctor Who and read out the TARDIS.  Because wibbly wobbly timey wimey. 
  5. I'd take Brick City and read out all the LEGO bricks.  All of them.  Since obviously my massive LEGO collection isn't massive enough yet. (But that's no problem because I can store it in my Hermione bag, right?)
  6. I would read out the magic cardboard from Cardboard, too. Then I'd probably make some things from it and sell them online to pay off my student loans. 
  7. I would read out Mace Windu's light saber from a Star Wars novel. 
  8. Harry's invisibility cloak from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.  You never know when being invisible could come in handy. 
  9. I would read out all of Donalyn Miller's classroom library from The Book Whisperer. I would love to add those books to my library's collection. 
  10. Last but not least, I would read out Mzee from Owen and Mzee.  Because obviously my school needs a library turtle.  Actually, he'd probably have to live in the courtyard outside the library, but I'd leave the door propped open so he could come in and visit when he wanted to.

That's my list.  How about you?  If you could read an item out of a book, what would you choose?

If you missed last week's post, here's a link to that one.

My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer

Gennari, Jennifer. My Mixed-Up Berry Blue Summer. Houghton Mifflin, 2012.

June lives in Vermont with her moms. While Vermonters are fighting the battle over marriage equality, June is trying to win a pie contest and deal with the backlash her family faces over her mothers' upcoming wedding. June resents her mother's fiancee and wishes she would leave so things would be less complicated, but she also wants her mother to be happy. 

There are very few LGBT+ books written for tweens and middle-grade students, and I am glad for this story and its focus on a child of a lesbian couple instead of the traditional coming-out story. While this book is a bit young for my patrons, I would recommend it to elementary-aged students and their families.

Recommended for: middle grade
Red Flags: none
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

Read-alike: Better Nate Than Ever

21 March 2014

My Kingdom for Some Books

I work at an urban middle school, and from what I've been hearing from libraries across the country, I am fortunate to even have a job at a school library. Some of the schools in my school district share a librarian, so I'm even more fortunate in that I stay at the same school, with the same collection and same kids, all the time.

When I started at this school, I was dismayed at the state of the collection. From the looks of things, it had never been weeded; there were books in this collection that were older than my parents. I can't imagine that a book from the 1950s would be of much use to the average middle school student.  So I did what any reasonable librarian would do in this situation: I weeded. I cleared out all the books that were so laughably old that the information was no longer correct.  When the dust finally settled, I had a more up-to-date collection than I had before, but also a noticeably smaller one.  I needed to add new books to my collection, and I needed them now, if not sooner.  There was only one problem: I have no budget. Yes, you read that correctly.  While my school is blessed to have a library and a librarian, there is no budget for new materials. None. Zero. Zip. Nada.

All this meant for me is that I have had to get rather creative in the way I obtain new books for my library. I spent the better part of a month scouring the internet for possible sources for books for my students, and while I haven't found a magic money tree that would provide me with a budget, I have found a few options that may also work for you:

  • Donors Choose: This website allows teachers (and librarians) to create a wishlist of things for their classroom/library. Once the wishlist is created, the site generates a funding total, and all you have to do is advertise it.  Some of your friends, family, or faculty may be willing to donate some money to help your library get new books. Your project will also be on the Donors Choose website, so people searching for a place to donate may choose your project as well. I created a Donors Choose project in September and it was funded by the end of December.  We had our new books in January.  I had to send in a thank-you package containing thank you notes written by my students, and I wrote a thank-you letter that was posted on the site.  I will probably create another of these projects in the fall.
  • Goodreads: I hate to give up what has been a good source of free books for me, but I also want to make sure others have books.  Goodreads is a great resource for information about books. I have it up on my computer all day long, as students are always asking, "What's the next book in the such-and-such series?" or "What is this book about?" I write reviews on there myself and keep track of what I'm currently reading or what I want to read. But Goodreads also does giveaways; you can sign up for as many as you like, and if you win the book, it's mailed directly to you by the author or publisher. I have won probably ten or so giveaways over the course of this school year. Goodreads does suggest that winners write reviews of the books they receive, but it isn't required. The catch here is that lots of other people sign up for the giveaways, too, so while I've won ten books, I've probably entered five hundred or more giveaways.  I don't win often, but it is nice to receive a free book when I do.
  • Goodwill, Salvation Army, Thrift Town, etc.: Stores that sell used goods are great sources for books. They aren't free, but they're usually a lot cheaper than they would be otherwise.  The key is to check the same store(s) on a regular basis. I was able to purchase the last six books in the Pendragon series (in hardcover) for $1 each, which completed a set at our library. While I can't give my entire paycheck to updating our library, I can buy $6 worth of books now and then.
  • Library Book Sales: Our county public library had a book sale a few months ago, and I made sure to visit the first day it opened. I grabbed as many YA titles as I could carry.  Because YA books are still sometimes considered children's books, they often sell for 50 cents or $1.  In this case, I got ten recently published hardcover YA novels for $5, and they were practically already processed for me! All I had to do was cover the old library barcodes with my own and we were good to go. 
  • Free Book Stores:  Yes, this is really a thing. They accept donations, organize them, and then allow people to come in and take a certain number of books each time. Since these books are free and are donated, it's kind of hit-or-miss, but it's possible to find good things here.  And they're free. 
  • East Bay Children's Book Project: If you live in the SF Bay Area, you can take advantage of this program.  It's currently set up in a park in Oakland, but they are looking for a new home for the fall. If you are a teacher or librarian, you can take up to 50 children's books or an unlimited number of YA books each time you visit.  I have gone three times now and gotten over 300 new books for our library. The only cost involved was my travel time and the gas for my car. 
    Books I got from one trip to the EBCBP - all free!
  • Scholastic Book Fairs: My school has a book fair twice a year. I always make sure to attend a workshop, which earns me 25 Scholastic Dollars, and I always take all of the profits in Scholastic Dollars as well. We also did the All for Books program during this last fair, and my students raised over $150 - that means that I had $150 to spend on books for my library, and a library in need somewhere got 150 books. 
  • Friends and family: I have made it abundantly clear to my ever-patient friends and family that my library needs books. Now they are also on the lookout for books that are on sale or books they can donate. Sometimes they give me books they are trying to get rid of, which means I might get outdated books or books that are not appropriate for middle school, but I always accept them anyway and just find new homes for them if they are not right for my library.
  • Students: It might sound weird, but some of my students actually have a lot of current YA books that they've either already read or already decided not to read.  Just this morning I had a student walk in and hand me eight books that she didn't want anymore.  Several of these books fill in gaps in the series I am collecting. She told me, "I like donating books to our library, because even if I haven't read them, I know I can always check them out later if I want to read them."
  • Publishers: Sometimes publishers will send me free books if I contact them after I've attended a Booklist webinar. Also, obviously it's easy to get free books from publishers at conferences like ALA; unfortunately, these conferences can be expensive and aren't always close enough to home to warrant a trip.  I am planning on attending the conference in Las Vegas this year, so I'm hoping to get some books there, too. Capstone Publishing offers $100 in book points to AASL members, so I got four hardcover biographies from them, absolutely free. 
This is how I've been able to add nearly 1,000 books to my school's collection this year.  I still have a wish list a mile long, but the library is much better off than it was at the beginning of the year. 

How about you? Are there any free/cheap sources of books you've found?

Whistle in the Dark

Long, Susan Hill. Whistle in the Dark. Holiday House, 2013.

Clem wants to go to school and become a writer someday, but in his small town, all the men work in the mine. Clem is disappointed, although not surprised, when he is pulled out of school to begin work in the mine. He finds the mine stifling and wishes he could somehow escape it.

This book reminded me a lot of the movie October Sky, where a kid from a mining town wants to enter a science fair. The tone in this book is similar: Clem dreams of bigger things but is trapped because he needs to help support his family. In Clem's case, though, the explosion in the mine solves the problem for him. This story is a bit bleak, but it is interesting and also likely a realistic portrayal of life in a mining town.

Recommended for: tweens
Red Flags: none
Overall Rating: 4/5 stars

20 March 2014


Christopher, Lucy. Stolen: A Letter to My Captor. Chicken House, 2009.

Gemma is in an airport in Bangkok when it happens. She is drugged and kidnapped by a man who takes her to the Australian Outback where he has prepared a house for them to live in. Forever. She tries to escape several times, but they are so far away from civilization that there's no way she could get anywhere. When Gemma allows herself to be bitten by a snake, her captor has to take her to get some help, and it is then that she is able to escape and be reunited with her family.

This book is very popular among the girls at my library, and some of them have told me that their parents are surprised at how much time they spend reading when they pick up this book. I'm sure they are drawn to the fact that Gemma should hate her kidnapper but finds herself drawn to him and even misses him once she is freed.

Recommended for: teens
Red Flags: kidnapping, obviously; there is no sex - he doesn't rape her, molest her, etc. Some alcohol use.
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

19 March 2014


Forward, Toby. Fireborn: A Dragonborn Novel. Bloomsbury, 2013.

Bee is an apprentice to an evil fire wizard, and on the day of her naming ceremony, he steals her magic. Now she will need help from another wizard and his apprentice to get her magic back from the evil wizard.

The narration in this book is beautiful. I loved the lyrical quality of the fairy-tale story. This was not a "read for my fifteen minute break and then put down" kind of book; I needed lots of uninterrupted time to get lost in the story and enjoy the world-building and the characters. This book is not fast-paced, so I would not recommend it to readers with little patience for narration, but strong readers or those who enjoy taking their time to read through a book will enjoy this one very much.

Recommended for: tweens
Red Flags: minor fantasy violence
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

Read-alike for: Inkheart, the Redwall series, Paolini's Inheritance series

18 March 2014

Enrique's Journey

Nazario, Sonia. Enrique's Journey: The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunited with His Mother. Delacorte BFYR, 2013.

Enrique's mother left Honduras for the United States so that she could make more money and provide for her children. Years later, her son Enrique decides to follow her to the United States as well. Enrique is sent back to Honduras time and time again as he travels atop trains and in the backs of trucks on his way to the United States.

Enrique's story was a good remind of the reasons why some people emigrate to the United States, legally or otherwise. This book has been popular in my library because of the large Hispanic population in my school, and I will continue to recommend this book to my students.

Recommended for: teens, tweens, adults
Red Flags: violence, drug use, mentions of rape
Overall Rating: 4/5 stars

17 March 2014

COUNTDOWN: The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand

The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand will be available for purchase in just four weeks! Sourcebooks Jabberwocky was kind enough to provide me with an advance reader copy of this book to preview before its publication. This book kept me interested to the point that I skipped meals (and laundry, although that's not much of a sacrifice) to finish the story.  I will definitely be ordering a copy of this book for my library.

Here's a peek at the cover:

There is a book trailer that you can view if you'd like more information about this story. I also have a preview snippet of the story that you can read here.


Kincaid, S.J. Vortex. Katherine Tegen Books, 2013. 

Tom and his friends have completed the first part of their training as super soldiers/weapons, equipped with computers in their brains and the latest technology. With graduation approaching, Tom needs to find a corporate sponsor, but that's hard to do when he keeps accidentally insulting everyone he meets. Tom becomes aware of some problems with the system and begins to fight against them, and he's not sure whom he can trust.

I probably would have enjoyed this one more if I had started with the first book in the series. As it is, this was on a top ten list for 2013, so I read it and enjoyed it well enough, but I wasn't as invested in the story as I would have been had I read the first book as well. We have this book in my library, and it circulates pretty well, although I generally recommend to my patrons that they read the first book before tackling this one.

Recommended for: teens, fans of sci-fi and action stories
Red Flags: violence, language
Overall Rating: 4/5 stars

Read-alike for: Empire by Orson Scott Card.

14 March 2014

Posting Reviews

I love the library I work in. I love my giant circulation desk with all of its counter space, the huge windows that let me see the sun shining through the trees, the birds chirping outside (except the one time a bird came in the library, but that's a story for another day), and all the space my students have to work or play games or read.  The one thing I don't particularly love, though, is the giant support beam that sits right in front of my desk.  It's pretty clear that the space my library's in was intended to be two separate classrooms at one point, and that this beam would normally be hidden in the wall, but when I sit at my desk, if I don't focus on the trees outside the windows or the shelves of books, I see a post.

One of the first things I did this year as I was cleaning and organizing the library and working on making it welcoming and inviting for my students was to consider this post.  It was just so ugly, and it's right in the middle of my space, so it's ugly and obvious.  I tried to figure out what I could do with it to make it both useful and more pleasing to look at, when it hit me: I could use this post for student book reviews.  The students could write short reviews of books they've read, and I could post them on the post (see what I did there?).

I created a short review form.  I wanted it to be short so the students wouldn't view it as an assignment and so that the students who are not strong in writing skills or who are learning English as their second language could also complete the form. Also, I wanted there to be room for lots of reviews on the post, so the paper needed to be small.  I created a form that fits four-to-a-page and looks like this:

I then printed this form on brightly colored paper, cut each paper into fourths, and made use of some leftover office supplies to display it like this:

The first day these sat out on my desk, I had four students ask what they were.  When they found out that they could write reviews for a book - any book - and that I would post the review, even if they didn't like the book, they were sold.  They all took one sheet of each color, sat down, and wrote reviews for me. Pretty soon other students were curious, too, because the pole was becoming colorful and eye-catching instead of being an eyesore. Some teachers requested copies of the review form to use as an extra credit assignment in their classes. Some students took review papers and used them as bookmarks, then filled them out when they were finished reading their books.

The students really enjoyed reading each other's reviews, looking for their own reviews on the post, and choosing books based on their classmates' recommendations.  I think they also appreciated that there was no pressure with these review papers. I didn't check them for grammar or spelling, and I didn't mind if multiple reviews were written for one book.

I have had to reprint the review forms on several occasions because they are so popular.  Now, when students tell me they don't know what to read, in addition to traditional reader's advisory (which I truly enjoy doing), I can also point them to the review post and suggest that they look for a good book there.

The review post is very full, to the point where I have had to overlap review forms because there simply isn't room.  The students have asked when I plan to pull down all the reviews so we can start over. For now, I'm planning on leaving all the reviews up until the end of the school year, and in the fall we can start redecorating the post.  Now when I sit at my desk, I don't mind if the post blocks my view of the sun-dappled trees outside; it's giving me a chance to see what my students are reading.

As always, if you wish for a copy of my review form, I am more than willing to share!  You can download an editable copy of this form here


Deutsch, Barry. Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword. Amulet, 2010.

Mirka lives in an Orthodox Jewish community, but she doesn't want to learn how to be a good wife; she wants to fight dragons. Blending elements of multiculturalism with fantasy, this story follows Mirka as she speaks with a witch, who sends her to a troll to get a sword, which will then allow Mirka to slay the dragons she's always wanted to fight. The fairy-tale elements are enjoyable as is the look into the life of an Orthodox Jewish community.

Recommended for: teens and tweens
Red Flags: I believe the best term is "cartoon violence" - nothing serious, but Mirka is trying to get a sword in order to kill dragons
Overall Rating: 5/5

Read-alike for Patricia Wrede's Enchanted Forest Chronicles.

13 March 2014

Far, Far Away

McNeal, Tom. Far Far Away. Knopf BFYR, 2012

Jeremy can hear voices; specifically, Jeremy hears the voice of Jacob Grimm (the narrator of this book) in his head. Jeremy is trying to keep his family afloat: caring for his father who hasn't recovered after the disappearance of his mother, running his grandfather's two-book bookstore, and trying to survive going to school, etc. Also, because of the narrator we know there's a villain somewhere in this story, but not until the narrator recognizes the villain do we discover him, too.

Wow. This book was really well done, and I am so glad we have a copy of it in my library. First, having a fairy-tale style story narrated by Jacob Grimm is awesome. Second, I liked the sub-plot of Jeremy trying to save his bookstore by going on the reality TV show, but losing because he's never watched a Disney movie. Third, Jeremy's grandfather opened his bookstore to sell his own autobiography, both volumes of it, hence the Two-Book Bookstore. [Needless to say, Jeremy doesn't get much business at work.] Then we have the baker with his mysterious green smoke the night before he sells the prince cakes. And the whole time we know there's a bad guy that Jacob is keeping his eye out for, but since he doesn't know who it is, we don't, either. I guessed the ending long before we got there, but I still enjoyed the story very much. This will be an easy one to book talk, and I'm hoping it will get my students reinterested in the expansive fantasy collection in our library!

Recommended for: tweens, teens, strong middle grade readers, fans of fairy tales
Red Flags: some minor violence
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

12 March 2014

The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong

Holland, L. Tam. The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong. Simon & Schuster BFYR, 2013.

Vee Crawford Wong would describe himself as half Texan, half Chinese. He is in high school and he fakes a family tree for Spanish class and fakes a family history for his history class. He's frustrated because he doesn't really know his extended family at all. He ends up conning his family into a trip to China, where he meets his grandfather and finds out that sometimes things don't work out the way we expect them to.

What I liked: The multicultural aspect of this book was good. The details during the Wong family trip to China were good. Vee was a very real, very flawed character.

What I didn't like: First, Vee is uber-entitled. His family flies to China (all four of them, plus a guest) because of a letter Vee faked and which his father knew was a fake all along. That's a really expensive lesson for Vee to learn. Second, Vee refers to the girls' volleyball team as half princess and half lesbos. He stereotypes all the supposedly-lesbian volleyball players and uses the term lesbos frequently throughout his narration. That kind of homophobic language is not acceptable, and it did nothing to enhance the story at all.

Recommended for: young adults
Red Flags: homophobic slurs - "lesbo" and "fa----" neither of which is corrected, ever. Also, Vee is a teen boy, and the book is told from inside his brain. Therefore, lots of thoughts about sex.
Overall Rating: 2/5 stars

11 March 2014

Rose Under Fire

Wein, Elizabeth. Rose Under Fire. Disney Hyperion, 2013.

Rose is a pilot during WWII. She is transporting a plane from one base to another when she is captured by German soldiers and sent to a concentration camp. This story is told journal-style after she has escaped the camp and is recovering in Paris.

I actually enjoyed this book more than Code Name Verity, and I think my students will, too. Concentration camp stories are popular among teens, and this one, with its focus on political prisoners and the "rabbits" instead of the Jews, will be a nice way to round out our collection. I also think this is a great read-alike for Code Name Verity, and will be recommending it to my students who love WWII books.

Recommended for: fans of WWII stories, especially concentration camp stories, young adults
Red Flags: lots of death, lots of violence - the story is told in the middle of a concentration camp in a world war, so these are to be expected
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

10 March 2014

The 5th Wave

Yancey, Rick. The 5th Wave. Putnam Juvenile, 2013.

The first four waves of alien invasion killed off most of the population of Earth. Now the survivors are trying to pick up the pieces and prepare for whatever's next. This book follows Cassie's story as she tries to reunite with her younger brother and avoid the alien assassin who has been following her.

This is a very long book, and as such the author did not spell everything out at the beginning. It takes a long time into the book to understand what happened in the first four waves of attack and how the people are preparing for the inevitable next attack. I enjoyed this story, but I could see its length making it a hard sell to any but my strongest readers.

Recommended for: fans of Hunger Games and Ender's Game, young adults
Red Flags: lots of violence
Overall Rating: 4/5 stars

07 March 2014

Library Bingo

It is second semester, and as those of you in school libraries know, time tends to slow down considerably during the month of March.  February is busy enough with President's Day, etc., but at my school, March is four full weeks of school with nothing going on.  The students are itching for something new and interesting to do, but since my library has no budget, I have to get creative as far as offering new and exciting things for my students.

One of my solutions to the March doldrums is a game called Library Bingo.  I borrowed this idea from a public library's summer reading program, and it has been working beautifully in my library.  The concept is simple: I created a bingo card where each square lists something library-related the students have to do.  Most of the squares involve reading a book, but there are squares for recommending books to friends (and to the librarian), as well as visiting the library's website or reading book reviews.  When a student has completed a square, s/he brings the library bingo card to me and I stamp the square.  Each time a student completes an entire row, s/he is given a raffle ticket.  At the end of March, I will draw names from the raffle and those students will win prizes - prizes that have been donated by local businesses (as well as a few books that I have extra copies of).

Students who complete the entire bingo card earn a free book from our upcoming Scholastic Book Fair (I will use our Scholastic Dollars to pay for these books).  They also have the opportunity to start a "level two" card, which is a bit more difficult than the first level card. I started this program at the beginning of January when students returned to school, and so far six students have completed a first bingo card, two students have completed the second bingo card, and there are well over 100 raffle tickets in my raffle box.  Several teachers have used their classes' regular library visits as a time for students to choose one bingo square to work on; I love that the students are browsing the shelves with a purpose, as this helps the under-motivated readers to choose something other than "the skinniest book I can find really fast when the teacher makes me check something out."

The grand prize in our Library Bingo drawing is a Nook E-reader; my wife received this e-reader as a holiday bonus from her work, and since we both already have e-readers, she offered to donate it to my students. Talking to the students about the e-reader has given me the opportunity to explain to both students and staff that there are e-books at the public library that they can check out on their e-readers or phones, and many of them are now taking the opportunity to do just that.

My favorite part of this program is watching the students recommend books to each other (and to me and other staff members).  This provides students with motivation to talk about what they are reading as well as an opportunity to explore genres they might have otherwise ignored.

I am more than willing to share my bingo cards.  If you would like a copy, you can download it here.


Sedgwick, Marcus. Midwinterblood. Indigo, 2011.

These are seven stories that are tied by two characters throughout centuries. The two characters vary in age, but nonetheless are drawn to each other.  It isn't until the end of the book that the reader is able to make all of the connections and see how the stories tie together.

I ended up liking this book a lot more than I thought I would. At first I was just confused. I didn't like that the separate stories were told out of order, but I assumed that by the end it would make sense, and it did. I could easily booktalk this book to my students, and both those who like scary books and those who like paranormal books would be drawn to this story. It's very rare that I would want to go back to a story and reread it, but I almost wanted to do that with this one so I could see the connections that I missed the first time through.

Recommended for: young adults
Red Flags: murder
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

06 March 2014

Boxers & Saints

Yang, Gene. Boxers & Saints. First Second, 2013.

I have read American Born Chinese, and although I enjoyed the art in that book, I found the story difficult to follow, and I didn't really enjoy the story itself.

Boxers and Saints, however, are completely different. The art is just as lovely as in ABC, but these books tell the story of the Boxer Rebellion, something I remember hearing about in passing, but never really learned about either in school or on my own. Boxers tells the story from the point of view of a Boxer (obviously), a Chinese person who resents the presence of white people in China and who is willing to fight to keep China exclusively Chinese. Saints, on the other hand, tells the story of a person who converts to Christianity and welcomes the influence of the white people in China. Through both stories, the reader can see that, regardless of which side one believes is right, the conflict created a big mess and caused a lot of suffering and death.

I would easily recommend this book to my students. As it is, I can barely keep it on my shelves; I don't have to do the readers' advisory when my students do it for me. :)

Recommended for: teens, tweens, adults, fans of historical fiction
Red Flags: violence
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

05 March 2014

A Moment Comes

Bradbury, Jennifer. A Moment Comes. Atheneum BFYR, 2013.

This book follows the lives of three teens during the partition that created India and Pakistan as two separate countries. One is a Sikh, one a Muslim, and the third is the daughter of the British man who is drawing the line between the countries.

I ended up enjoying this book much more than I expected. I was able to slip into this culture and watch what was happening, and there was enough context given that I could understand things that I would otherwise have been oblivious to. Also, the foreign words were defined in the back (although I wish they had been italicized throughout the story). I could see this book being popular in my school, and it would help my students understand an historical time period they might not otherwise be exposed to.

Recommend for: teens
Red Flags: the mom gets drunk toward the end of the story, the Sikh girl is captured and there is threat of her being raped; there's lots of talk of violence and people dying,
Overall Rating: 5/5 stars

04 March 2014


Clark, Kristin. Freakboy. Farrar, Straus & Giroux BFYR, 2013.

Freakboy is a novel in verse, telling the story of three different people: Brendan, a teen guy who sometimes thinks he would be more comfortable as a girl; his girlfriend, Vanessa, who is the only girl on their school's wrestling team; and Angel, a transwoman who is "paying it forward" by volunteering at a center for LGBTQ+ teens. This story is mostly Brendan's as he comes to terms with who he is, but Vanessa and Angel have important roles, too.

I know that the "novel in verse" aspect of this book will appeal to my students, many of whom love all things Ellen Hopkins. I am glad that this book doesn't tell the stereotypical "I've always known I was in the wrong body" trans story, but allows for fluidity in a person's gender identity and expression. This book was clear without being explicit or graphic, realistic while still maintaining hope, and obviously a quick read due to the free verse style. If it's not on your library's shelves yet, get it.

Recommended for: tweens, teens, fans of Ellen Hopkins or, as my students say, "books about kids with lots of problems"
Red Flags: some minor violence, mentions of prostitution - nothing graphic
Overall Rating; 5/5 stars

03 March 2014

All the Truth that's in Me

Barry, Julie. All the Truth that's in Me.Viking Juvenile, 2013.

Judith disappeared when she was fourteen. Two years later, she returns to her town, but her tongue has been partially cut out, so she cannot tell what happened to her. Judith must decide whether it's important enough to tell the truth about what happened.

I didn't like this book as much as I thought I would. Set in the early colonial period, it's a decent read-alike for The Scarlet Letter, and I probably would have loved this book except for one character: Judith's mom. Once she returns, her mom acts ashamed of her, tells her she's not allowed to speak, and keeps reminding her how worthless she is, all the while spoiling Judith's brother. Her mom never once seemed happy to have her daughter back, and the reader eventually learns that her mother thought Judith had run off on her own and had not been kidnapped. I just can't understand how a mom could hate her own child that much, even after Judith returned, damaged, to her home. I also didn't understand the pattern of Judith's flashbacks to her captivity. She was there for TWO YEARS, but it's only mentioned very rarely, so the reader never really gets a good picture of what happened to her while she was there.

The plot itself is interesting, and there's enough of a mystery element that my students might still like this book. We don't currently have a copy in my library, but if I find a magic money tree I might get one.

Recommended for: fans of colonial stories, young adults
Red Flags: lots of speculation about Judith being raped (she wasn't), her mom makes some kind of alcohol and both drinks and sells it
Overall Rating: 3/5 stars