Thursday, February 26, 2009

IF I GROW UP by Todd Strasser

When you live in the projects and are faced daily with gang violence, drive-by shootings, teen pregnancy, and poverty, the chance of growing up and living a decent life as an adult dwindle with each passing year. Todd Strasser takes readers into the life of one teen living in just such a world.

DeShawn lives with his grandmother and his sister. His grandmother cleans for a living, but even though she's not old by the suburbs' standards, she is old and tired here in the inner city. DeShawn goes to school and wants to stay on the straight and narrow, but everyone he knows is involved in gangs or drugs, so the pressure is on.

IF I GROW UP starts when DeShawn is twelve years old. As each year passes he finds it more and more difficult to keep focused on the things he needs to do to find success in the world most of us know. The pull of the gang lifestyle with its promise of money and power are tempting. Being part of the Disciples would guarantee there would be food on the table, diapers for his sister's twin babies, and money for the rent every month.

When it becomes evident who was responsible for the death of a young child, DeShawn struggles with a feeling of needing to even the score. That's part of the curse of gang life. Once there is one killing, everyone wants to seek revenge which creates an out of control spiraling effect with one drive-by shooting after another. Is DeShawn the one to beat the odds and stay in control of his life by staying in school, getting a decent job, and make his family proud, or will he end up like the rest of the young boys and men of the projects?

Todd Strasser examines the tragedy of life in the inner city. The statistics reveal odds stacked against the youth of our cities. Strasser is able to paint a realistic picture of this tragic world, but at the same time he keeps this novel free of the extreme use of foul language, explicit sex, and graphic drug use most novels of this type usually employ. This makes IF I GROW UP a story that can be shared and discussed in any classroom setting. I plan to use it as a read-aloud with my students to help them appreciate how lucky they are to be growing up in a rural, small town atmosphere.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

JACK THE TUMOR by Anthony McGowan

Here's this week's "Waiting on Wednesday." (A soon-to-be available book that I can't wait to read.)

I've been hearing about this book for over a year. Released in Great Britian, it is due out in the U.S. in April. I think it sounds like a hoot!

Summary courtesy of Barnes & Noble:

"Hector is being hectored by an unlikely bully: a talking brain tumor. And it’s not just a talking brain tumor. It’s a know-it-all, pain-in-the-arse, jibber-jabbering brain tumor that names itself Jack, and insists on coaching Hector through life even as it’s threatening to take his life away. It’s a pretty good coach, actually. With Jack in control of Hector’s speech and brain chemicals, Hector suddenly finds himself with a cool haircut, a new fashion sense, and tactics for snogging previously unattainable hottie Uma Upshaw. But when Jack begins to force increasingly questionable decisions and behavior, Hector has to find a way to turn the tables – before it’s too late for both of them. Delightfully twisted, desperately funny, and deeply moving, this novel is also the winner of the Booktrust Teenage Prize in the United Kingdom."

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

OPERATION REDWOOD by S. Terrell French

In OPERATION REDWOOD four young kids take on big business to save a forest full of giant redwood trees. Debut author S. Terrell French has written an adventure filled with creative ideas, spunky ambition, and a love of the environment.

Julian Carter-Li is staying with his uncle and aunt while his mother travels to China to photograph Buddist temples. Things are not going well. Julian doesn't seem to be able to do anything according to the strict rules his aunt has established, and his uncle seems constantly disappointed in him. In fact while alone in his uncle's fancy office, Julian stumbles across an extremely insulting email. It appears that his uncle believes Julian is unruly and "sullen" just like his late father. Julian can't believe what he is reading.

Another email that attracts Julian's attention is from a young girl complaining that IPX, his uncle's company, is planning to destroy an area of redwood forest known as Big Tree Grove. Although he has never met this girl named Robin, Julian can relate to her anger that a huge company like IPX that already has more money than he can imagine, would want to destroy something as important and historical as the redwoods just to make more money selling lumber.

Julian keeps the emails he reads a secret until he hears his aunt's plans to send him off to Math Camp for the summer. He appeals to his friend Danny for help. When he tells Danny about the emails, Danny begins to concoct a plan that would keep Julian from spending his summer doing math calculations and instead possibly saving the redwoods.

What follows is a daring adventure. Julian and Danny scheme to get Julian out of the city and off to Big Tree Grove where he can help Robin protect her old-growth forest. They may be just a few young kids, but they have big ideas. Even when their plans seem to be wrecked by Julian's annoying and interfering aunt, they manage to use creativity and determination to keep their eye on the goal.

OPERATION REDWOOD provides excellent reinforcement for conservation lessons and the importance of preserving our natural habitats. It would work for readers in the 8-13 age group for independent reading or as a great classroom read-aloud.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

SCAT by Carl Hiaasen

The biology field trip to Black Vine Swamp ends with a sudden wildfire and the disappearance of Truman School's most feared teacher, Mrs. Bunny Starch. Don't let the innocent sounding first name fool you. Mrs. Starch frightens even the most bold and undisciplined students who have had the misfortune of being scheduled to attend class in her room. She tolerates absolutely no nonsense and expects students to commit their science text to memory or be prepared to suffer her wrath.

Nick and his good friend Marta have been able to survive Mrs. Starch so far. On the day of the field trip, luck is on their side and they are assigned to another teacher's group. Nick's group is about to safely board the waiting bus when Mrs. Starch announces she is returning to the swamp to retrieve a lost asthma inhaler. Since the teacher had driven to the site of the field trip seperately, the bus heads back to the school with the students and remaining teachers, and it isn't until much later in the day that school officials realize Mrs. Starch never returned.

The next day it is announced that wacky Mr. Waxmo is to be their substitute until Mrs. Starch returns from a family emergency. Nick and Marta soon tire of Mr. Waxmo's outlandish teaching style and wish that Mrs. Starch would hurry back. The mystery surrounding her sudden absence causes Nick and Marta to begin an investigation of their own.

What follows is a fast-paced adventure involving endangered species, illegal oil drilling, a fellow classmate accused of arson, an eccentric grandmother, a Macaw that speaks three languages, and Nick's own personal family problems. SCAT has a little something for everyone.

Carl Hiaasen, famous for a column in the Miami Herald and countless books for adult readers, has once again proven his talent in writing for the YA audience. In addition to SCAT, he has written HOOT and FLUSH. This latest should be popular with readers both young and old.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

MY LIFE IN PINK & GREEN by Lisa Greenwald

Lisa Greenwald has a nice combination of things going on in her debut novel MY LIFE IN PINK & GREEN. Put together "green" living to save the earth, the trials and tribulations of being a 7th grade girl, and the financial stress of running a family business, and you have a real page-turner.

Lucy will be the third generation owner of a family pharmacy - that is if her mother and grandmother can keep the store going against the competition of large chains and consumers only looking for one-stop shopping options. She hears their constant arguments about which direction is best for the business her grandfather started years ago. Lucy's mother's objections are that the store is stuck in the 80's, while her mother, Lucy's grandmother, says her own daughter is the downfall of the business because of her poor money management skills. All Lucy knows is that she doesn't want to lose the family business, and she thinks she just might have the answer.

Being a 7th grader is also a challenge for Lucy. Her older sister is away at college, but thanks to Claudia, at least Lucy knows how to look her best and with the help of good grooming she maintains a high level of self-confidence in the face of middle school stress. She has always been interested in makeup and growing up in the pharmacy with its make-up aisle so easily accessible, she has developed certain knack for making people look their best. When people begin realizing her talent, she finds herself running a makeover business that is bringing in needed cash for the store.

In an effort to boost her friend Sunny's confidence with boys, Lucy joins the school's Earth Club. Membership in the club revives Lucy's interest in recycling and promoting some of the more nature friendly makeup products she uses with her customers. When an afternoon of research for the club causes Lucy to stumble across a city grant offering some major money help for local businesses who "go green", she believes she has truly found the way to save the family business.

MY LIFE IN PINK & GREEN grabbed my attention right from the start. Lucy is portrayed a fun, upbeat 7th grader not afraid to test out her innovative ideas. The addition of the financial stress in the family business brings this story into the here and now of our economic woes and will help hold the interest of readers dealing with their own tough times. By adding humor and a bit of young romance, Lisa Greenwald has really hit the mark with this novel. I look forward to reading what I hope will be a long line of her YA work.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Here's this week's "Waiting on Wednesday." (A soon-to-be available book that I can't wait to read.)

SAME DIFFERENCE by Siobhan Vivian
I love the cover art. That picture just makes me want to know more about this girl's life.

Summary courtesy of Barnes & Noble:

"Emily is ready for a change. She's been in the same town with the same friends for a long time...and none of them really understand her art. But when she goes to Philadelphia for a summer art institute, she suddenly finds like-minded people. One in particular, Fiona, intrigues and challenges her. But there are some things Emily is going to have to find out for herself — like what the balance is between life and art, and which is more important when push comes to shove."

Release date - March 2009

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

FADE by Lisa McMann

The life of a dream catcher continues. FADE, the sequel to Lisa McMann's WAKE, contains even more excitement and heart-stopping action, so I can't even imagine what's in store for readers in her third book.

Once again Janie and her secret boyfriend Cabel help Captain Kominsky crack the case. This time they work undercover to unmask a sexual predator teaching at Fieldridge High School. Janie uses her ability to gain access to the dreams and nightmares of her classmates to gather evidence implicating one of her very own teachers.

After growing up with an alcoholic mother and pretty much taking care of herself, Janie is finally beginning to master her amazing talent. Some of the mysteries and complications of dream catching are revealed when the Captain gives Janie a green notebook belonging to the late Martha Stubins, Dream Catcher. Martha shares both the blessings and the curses of this strange ability. Janie learns more about controlling her gift, but also more about its disastrous effects.

FADE is filled with breath-taking moments of suspense, frustrating moments of anger and fear, and tender moments of emotion. Janie and Cabel learn how important their relationship is and how valuable their help can be to others. Readers will become emotionally invested in the couple and will no doubt find it difficult to stop thinking about them even after the cover is closed.

Monday, February 16, 2009

MY FATHER'S SON by Terri Fields

My first experience reading Terri Fields was HOLDUP. I loved that book. Great characters, enough twists and turns to keep me interested, and alternating view points which I love. Needless to say when I saw MY FATHER'S SON, I snatched it up. It was a great move!

Kevin Windor's life is fairly uneventful. His parents divorced long before he had any memories of them together, so he is used to living with mom during the week and spending most weekends with his dad. Kevin has accepted the fact that his mom gets jealous of his time with his dad, but she's a good cook so at least weekdays he eats well while she nags him about his homework.

Homework and after school pickup basketball games fill most of Kevin's time, but that humdrum daily existence comes to a sudden end the day Kevin flips on the evening news and sees his father's face. The breaking news announcement tells Kevin that his father, Greg Windor, has been arrested. He is the suspected DB25 Monster, a serial killer terrorizing women in a three state area.

How could the man Kevin has spent countless hours playing video games with and eating takeout pizza with, be a serial killer? How could a man like that seem like a normal single dad weekend after weekend?

Kevin's life soon becomes a roller-coaster ride. He learns very quickly who his real friends are and how his normal routine can become the center of attention for pushy reporters and thrill seekers. As much as his mother tries to keep their life on course, Kevin finds it difficult to concentrate and focus in school and ends up suspended several times as a result of his uncontrolled emotions. As much as he wants to help his father, he is met with resistance from his father's attorney and his father himself. The more time that passes, the more Kevin finds himself turning against the father he at first believed was incapable of such crimes. What kind of son has he become?

MY FATHER'S SON is a thrilling ride from start to finish. The action begins on page one and continues with unexpected twists and turns and high emotions. Terri Fields examines the frustration of helplessness, the guilt created by doubt, and the often fragile bond between parent and child. This one is a sure winner for the YA audience.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


Ever since the first PRINCESS DIARIES book I've been a fan. PRINCESS FOREVER is supposedly the last one, but I'm hoping she won't disappear forever.

Many things are happening in Mia's already amazing life. She is about to turn eighteen and graduate from high school. She has been accepted to a slew of terrific colleges, and now she must decide, her father is in the middle of a political battle as he runs for prime minister of Genovia, and it's possible Mia's senior project - a romance novel - might get publish after all. If all that is not enough, there's the upcoming prom and J.P.'s invitation to that prom that comes complete with a diamond promise ring. In typical Mia-style, she writes about all the excitement in her journal.

Many of the loose ends from previous novels are tied up neatly in PRINCESS FOREVER. Mia learns the real story behind her feud with former best friend Lilly, and she's taken totally by surprise when Michael returns from Japan as the famous, young inventor of the CardioArm, an innovative new medical device. Mia continues to champion the cause of her beloved Genovia and comes to appreciate all the years of Grandmere's princess lessons and royal advice.

Meg Cabot has satisfied this reader with her final Princess Mia installment, but as I said earlier, I wouldn't turn down a chance to see how things are going for Mia in the future sometime.

Friday, February 6, 2009


This month I asked my 8th graders to search the books in my classroom for interesting opening lines. Here are the books they found.

SOMETHING INVISIBLE by Siobhan Parkinson
Nobody ever blamed Jake for what happened.

DEADLINE by Chris Crutcher
My plan was to focus my senior year on information I could use after graduation when I set out for Planet Earth from the Pluto that is Trout, Idaho, population 943.

So, there I was, tied to an altar made from out-dated encyclopedias, about to get sacrificed to the dark powers by a cult of evil Librarians.

WAKE by Lisa McMann
Janie Hannaigan’s math book slips from her fingers.

WNGS by E.D. Baker
Tamisin Warner first saw real goblins the Halloween she was eleven.

I can tell you from experience that a jail cell is not a place you’d like to visit.

SHOCK POINT by April Henry
It was the rough hand over her mouth that convinced Cassie Streng that what was happening was real.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

CHEATED by Patrick Jones
“It’s really simple, kid,” the investigator barks at me from across the table.

PROM by Laurie Halse Anderson
Once upon a time there was an eighteen-year-old girl who dragged her butt out of bed and hauled it all the way to school on a sunny day in May.

BORN TO ROCK by Gordon Korman
The thing about a cavity search is this: it has nothing to do with the dentist.

DOORMAT by Kelly McWilliams
My best friend thinks she’s pregnant.

I hurry down the cold hospital corridor and barge through the automatic doors of the emergency department.

WICKED: PRETTY LITTLE LIARS series by Sara Shepard
Wouldn’t it be nice to know what people are thinking?

Ever wish you could go back in time and undo your mistakes?

You know that boy who lives a few doors down from you who’s just the creepiest person alive.

Have you ever had a friend turn on you?

I wish that I didn’t sometimes, but I remember everything about that cursed, unspeakable, unhappy night twelve years ago, when I was just three years old and both of my parents were murdered.

TANTALIZE by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Lousy idea, us sitting on the railroad tracks.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Here's this week's "Waiting on Wednesday." (A soon-to-be available book that I can't wait to read.)

THE GUARDIAN by Joyce Sweeney (March 31)

I don't know anything about this one, but I do know I love her other books and so do my students.

Other Joyce Sweeney books - PLAYERS, WAITING FOR JUNE, and HEADLOCK. Give them a try if you get a chance.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

STOLEN CAR by Patrick Jones

Danielle can't understand why her mother puts up with Carl. He is the latest in a long string of dad wannabes. He is a drunk without a job, and all he does is hang around their cruddy trailer while her mother works a thankless waitress job to keep food on the table. When Carl begins knocking her mother around, Danielle calls 911, but that only puts a stop to things temporarily.

Danielle's only escape is her best friend Ashley. Ashley's parents always welcome her into their home when things get out of hand in her own. She can count on them to offer hot chocolate and a safe, quiet place to pass the time until it is safe to go back to her rundown trailer in Circle Pines.

Evan who works at Halo Burger and wishes Danielle thought of him as more than just a friend, also keeps an eye on Danielle. His pathetic attempts at humor are his way of covering up the fact that he loves her and wishes that she would look to him for emotional support. Together Evan and Ashley begin to worry when Danielle gets involved with Reid. She's fallen for him before and gotten hurt, but she swears this time it is different and he really cares about her.

STOLEN CAR by Patrick Jones takes one fifteen year old girl starved for love and attention and puts her into the hands of a no-good, red Viper driving, pothead who uses up young girls and throws them away. The multi-layer plot takes readers into Danielle's rocky relationship with her mother, Evan's desire to help his troubled brother Vic, and Ashley's surprisingly mysterious past. Author Patrick Jones knows how to grab his readers on the first page and keep their attention right up until the last word.


One of my students suggested that I post the current book I'm reading aloud in class. Not a bad suggestion, I guess, so here goes.

I'm reading THE SLEDDING HILL by Chris Crutcher. I don't read this one every year, but I think the group of students I have this year can handle the more complex nature of this book.

Summary from the book jacket-

Billy Bartholomew has an audacious soul, and he knows it. Why? Because it's all he has left. He's dead.

Eddie Proffit has an equally audacious soul, but he doesn't know it. He's still alive.

These days, Billy and Eddie meet on the sledding hill, where they used to spend countless hours -- until Billy kicked a stack of Sheetrock over on himself, breaking his neck and effectively hitting tilt on his Earthgame. The two were inseparable friends. They still are. And Billy is not about to let a little thing like death stop him from hanging in there with Eddie in his epic struggle to get his life back on track.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

THE KIND OF FRIEND WE USED TO BE by Frances O'Roark Dowell

The friendship adventures of Kate and Marylin continue in THE KIND OF FRIENDS WE USED TO BE. The girls were in sixth grade in THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF GIRLS, and now they are in seventh.

Marylin continues to hang out with the cheerleaders, although she is gradually beginning to realize that the controlling Mazie does not always have her best interests in mind. When Marylin meets Rhetta the new girl, she never dreams that they could have so much in common. Rhetta's gorgeous anime drawings of fairies remind Marylin of the stories she constantly imagines but never has the courage to put down on paper. Their unlikely friendship gives Marylin the inspiration to stay a cheerleader but not follow the crowd just for the sake of following.

Kate also makes some new and different friendship connections. Who would have guessed that Flannery who just a year ago had made Kate feel so awful could possibly become someone with whom she can share some of her most personal thoughts. When Kate decides to move from an interest in basketball to taking up the guitar, Flannery provides the support and encouragement Kate needs. Kate also finds another musical kindred spirit when she meets Matthew Holler. He is not like the other boys. He recognizes her need to be something other than a girly-girl, and he really listens and cares about the song lyrics she feels driven to create.

Both Kate and Marylin realize their friendship will survive the test of time, but they also realize that they will both need other friends to support them as their interests and needs change.

Again Frances O'Roark Dowell tells a story that will connect with middle grade readers. She covers the topics of struggling friendships, divorcing parents, and the need to be an individual - all subjects that complicate the growing up process. Both THE KIND OF FRIENDS WE USED TO BE and THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF GIRLS would be excellent additions to any middle grade classroom or library.


They've been friends forever, but now they are in sixth grade and something is going wrong. This is the story of many friendships. Anyone who has felt their best friend drifting away will appreciate THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF GIRLS.

Kate and Marylin considered each other BFF's, but as sixth grade begins, their friendship is on a downhill slide. First there's Flannery, the worldly seventh grader who moves in down the street. Flannery mysteriously chooses Marylin over Kate, and the downhill slide begins. Marylin and Flannery refuse to speak to Kate and hurl nasty insults her way practically every day.

Eventually, Flannery starts hanging out with eighth grade girls and leaves Marylin wondering what happened. It seems like the perfect time for Kate to renew their friendship, but Marylin tries out for and makes the cheerleading squad and those new friends are just as mean as Flannery. They claim they don't have time for Kate who isn't allowed to use makeup and prefers basketball to cheerleading anyway.

Below the surface of the girls' new acquaintances, both spend time puzzling over how things have gotten so out of control. They both consider confronting the difficult topic, but neither wants to risk rejection.

THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF GIRLS offers middle grade readers a chance to experience a crumbling friendship that might very well be like experiences of their very own. This book examines the idea that we often know the right thing to do, but we don't have the courage to take a step in that direction. Frances O'Roark Dowell is the author of several other middle grade books - DOVEY COE and CHICKEN BOY.