Mar 29

Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton

I absolutely loved this book!  I suppose I’m a bit partial to stories told in poetry, as I’ve really enjoyed all of the YA novels I’ve read that are written this way, but I’m just so impressed at how these authors use this medium to tell incredibly powerful stories about difficult topics.

This particular book addresses issues of racism as well as tackling issues involved with being bi-racial in America, something that hits particularly close to home for me as I’m raising bi-racial children.  While the story is set in 1969, I think so many of Mimi’s experiences still resonate today–everything from being followed around a store by a suspicious salesperson to being a wallflower at your first middle school dance.

Of course, the other aspect that I’ve fallen in love with in Marilyn Hilton’s writing is her ability to capture images so beautifully in her poetry.  This section, towards the end of the novel, is particularly touching:

I used to think the people of Vermont

were like the snow–



and slow to thaw

But now I think

they’re what’s underneath.

Like the crocus bulbs making flowers all winter

in the dark earth–

invisible until they push through the snow–

and like the cicadas growing

underground for years–

until they burst from the ground–

the people of Vermont

do their hardest thinking

and their richest feeling

deep inside,

so no one can see.


Oct 17

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs


I’ve got mixed opinions about this one.  I mostly enjoyed reading it, but towards the end you begin to realize that you are being set up for a sequel, which disappoints me every time.

I really did love the premise…especially how Riggs uses the old photographs as part of his narrative, but I’m just a bit underwhelmed overall.  I love how Riggs brings up the idea that all of these children are stuck emotionally in adolescence, but then he doesn’t really ever develop that and build it as a plot point.

For some reason, the end feels very similar to The Golden Compass for me.  Everything is very rushed and the tone of the narrative gets much darker and everything builds to a climax that doesn’t mesh very well with the rest of the narrative and leaves so much unresolved that I’m just frustrated rather than intrigued.

Unfortunately, a colleague has already lent me the next book, so I feel obligated to continue with the series.  Maybe…

Aug 25

Summer Reading

After getting off to a rough start, I actually did do a bit of reading over the summer, though some of it “doesn’t count.”

I reread the 50 Shades of Gray books…sort of a guilty pleasure.  They are not particularly well written, and the content is not really appropriate for most conversations, but I just couldn’t help myself.  I needed something that was going to be light and fun and that would pull me in…one of those books you just can’t put down.  These were a perfect fit.  So, I sped through them but will not be counting them toward my reading goal for the year.

I picked up and put down several books during the summer that I may or may not come back to.

For now, I’ve been sucked into the Outlander series.  Part of me didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon, but honestly, the book has been sitting on my shelf for over a decade just waiting for me to get to it, so it was about time.  I recently started book three.  I’m only a couple of chapters into it and it’s already to the point where I have a hard time putting it down for the evening.

So, it seems I’ve kind of had a summer of fluff, but that’s about all I could handle while taking care of the twins all summer.

Apr 27

Macbeth (Graphic Novel) by Gareth Hinds

I LOVE this!  I love the idea.  I love the execution.  I particularly love Hinds’ endnotes where he explains his choices both for the illustrations and the changes/cuts to the original text.  He clearly has a very good grasp of not only the original play, but also the historical context.  I love that!

As a middle school teacher, I definitely feel that this adaptation makes the play accessible to my more advanced students.  One word of caution, however–it’s a fairly bloody story, and the illustrations reflect that.  There’s also the issue of the witches, if that’s something that concerns you, but they are also in the play and are depicted faithfully in this version.

Now, to go track down more of Hinds’ adaptations (Romeo & Juliet, The Odyssey, King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, and Beowulf).

Apr 27

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

I must say, I’m disappointed.  I discovered this book from a list of “books every woman MUST read” sort of thing, and I still don’t understand why this book was on that particular list.  There’s nothing about the story that appeals to or directly speaks to being a woman.  BUT, that’s not the only reason why I didn’t particularly like this book.

Maybe if you chose to read the book because you wanted a glimpse into the sordid lives of slum dwellers in Mumbai, you might actually appreciate the book.  The story isn’t really about an individual character, or even about the characters at all, but about the political and social constructs that serve to keep people in poverty, about the corruption in the government that, while professing to advance the cause of helping these people, only serves to perpetuate injustice.  If that’s what you are reading it for, to see an absolutely horrific depiction of Indian social services, then by all means, read on.  If you prefer to read something that uses character development and plot to more subtly put forward ideas and truths, look elsewhere.

The other thing to keep in mind as you read this novel is that it is written by an American reporter.  While I do not question Boo’s qualifications and knowledge of the topic, it’s good to remember that she is an outsider with an agenda.  However positive her agenda may be, and however knowledgeable about the Indian slums and the plight of the poor she may be, I couldn’t help but wonder as I read how the narrative might have been influenced by her Western lense and how it might have been different if written by an Indian author.

Feb 11

The Maze Runner by James Dashner


Eventually, this one redeemed itself for me.  The last half of the book, once all the exposition is out of the way, gets really interesting and does eventually reach the point where you can’t put the book down.

I think Dashner’s strength here is really in his character development.  Even once the action begins, the characters’ actions and choices align with what you’ve learned about them, and while some of those choices lead to tragic consequences, they are completely in keeping with the characters’ personalities and experiences.  It’s nice to see this kind of thought and sophistication put into a novel geared toward young adults.

In addition to my complaint about the frustratingly slow start and exposition, I was also bothered by what seems to be the standard strategy for serial writers…the ending that leaves you with more questions than answers.  I’ve only read a handful of YA novels that deal with this well, where the current storyline is given just enough resolution to satisfy me as a reader while leaving enough of a door open to entice me to continue reading the series.

Dashner really treads that fine line and doesn’t quite make it for me, leaving me frustrated enough that rather than being eager to begin the next novel, I just want to toss this one in the corner.  Okay, maybe not that strong of a reaction, but the jury is still out on whether or not I’ll pick up the next book in the series.

Feb 08

A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

This is really such a delightful novel.  The story is told in verse, but in a way that I think will still be very accessible to young adults.  I love when author’s take risks like this and write for young adults as though they think and feel and are capable not only a grappling with difficult subjects but also with challenging vocabulary and text structure.  What a refreshing follow up to The Grimm Collection.

Although the story is steeped in Hindu beliefs, the spiritual concepts and truths dealt with transfer very well to just about any faith–the idea of devoting what you do to God rather than to self.  The main character’s growth through some rather serious life events–injury, loss, death–is so beautifully illustrated without being didactic.

Jan 28

What teachers wish parents knew about middle school

So, I think about this A LOT, but it’s difficult to articulate it all, especially when meeting with a parent for just 15-20 minutes.

  1. The most important thing your child will learn in middle school is how to “do” school.  The skills and the concepts are great and all, and yes, these foundations will be built upon in high school, but really the most important skills your child should be building during these years are the skills it’s going to take to succeed in higher education.  How to say organized.  How to keep track of assignments and get them turned in to the proper teacher at the proper time.  How to follow multi-step instructions.  How to answer questions completely.  How to pay enough attention in class so that you aren’t lost the next day.  You get the idea.
  2. Communicate early and often.  Yes, teachers go a little batty when they have a constant barrage of emails and calls, but honestly, if the tone of the calls is that you want to stay connected and figure out how to help your kid, we LOVE YOU!  This is especially important if your child has special needs.  Secondary schools often struggle with the sheer volume of information we have and/or need on each child.  Some information slips through the cracks or gets delayed in getting to the classroom teachers.  If your child has special needs, ANY kind of special needs (everything from a learning disability with an IEP to he needs to not sit next to his best friend), let the teachers know right away.
  3. Get on whatever grading program the school uses and keep track of your child’s grades.  When we were in school, we never knew what grade we were going to get until the report cards came out.  Those days are over.  Most schools have some sort of online grading system that parents can check, and most teachers (should) update grades at least every other week.  Make sure you child is doing the work.  Also make sure you know what each teacher’s policies are on make up work or redoing assignments with low grades.  Do use the grades to help keep your child on track.  Don’t use the grades to pester the teachers about when they are going to update grades.
  4. Teach your child to advocate for him/herself.  It is so important for you to know what’s going on with your child’s school, but at this age, it’s even more important for him/her to know.  These are the years to help them transition from you being their advocate to being their own advocate.  Your child needs to learn how to speak with teachers, how to ask questions, how to clarify ideas and/or assignment instructions, how to speak up when he/she thinks there’s been a mistake with a grade.  While teachers love hearing from you, we love it even more when your child talks to us about his/her needs and concerns.
  5. Help us keep your child accountable for his/her own learning.  We can’t be at home to check up on your child and make sure the work is being done, and you can’t be with your child in class to see what the teachers are teaching.  Ultimately, the responsibility for both of these tasks falls on your child’s shoulders, and he/she might just need to experience the consequences when he/she isn’t doing the job.
  6. I can’t force your child to do work in my class.  When you ask me why your child isn’t doing his/her classwork, all I can tell you is that he/she is goofing off, despite all my best efforts to help him/her stay on task.
  7. Bullying will happen.  Yes, we are trying to do something about it.  Yes, you should get involved.  One of my biggest frustrations as a teacher is that usually the first time I hear about a bullying situation is from a parent.  Kids just don’t report it.  And no matter how much your child is convinced that I am super human with eyes in the back of my head, I can’t catch everything that happens in class.  It’s also impossible for me to hear every conversation happening in the hallways during passing period.  And, no, I’m not going to go patrol the student restroom…that’s kind of gross and potentially creepy.
  8. Yes, you can take your child on vacation on school days.  Yes, it’s still going to frustrate the teachers.  We realize that your child will learn valuable lessons from traveling, important lessons that cannot be learned in a classroom, but please also understand that I can’t teach your child all that I’m supposed to through a textbook and worksheets.  The majority of the value in what I do as a professional is provide instruction that students can’t simply get out of a book.  Will your chid’s overall, long-term success as a student be affected by a two week vacation in the middle of the school year?  No.  Will your child’s short term success (grade) in my class be affected?  Yes.  As long as you’re cool with that, so am I.
  9. Teachers are not perfect.  We are human and we make mistakes.  We are also more than happy to correct those mistakes.  We don’t do them on purpose, and we want to make it right as quickly as possible.  As an English teacher, if I teach five classes that are all maxed out at 35 students and I give just one assignment per day, that’s 175 pieces of paper to keep track of each day, never mind the kids who are going to turn assignments in late or redo assignments for a better score.  It’s a lot to keep track of.  At the same time, don’t assume that because your child didn’t get a grade for an assignment that it’s because the teacher lost it.  Most of us who have been teaching for awhile have very strict systems for how papers are turned in and dealt with once we have them just so that we don’t lose student work.
  10. We love your kid.  We love kids in general.  Middle school teachers really are a special breed, and I’m not just saying that because I am one.  I taught high school for nine years before becoming a middle school teacher.  Middle school is way harder, but because of that, I’ve become a way better teacher.  We teach these grades because we love these kids; we love working with this particular age group, an age that can be super challenging but super rewarding at the same time.  You know.  They’re your kids.  They’re great, aren’t they?

Jan 19

The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman

Well, I’m pretty disappointed with this one.  The start was slow, but intriguing.  Then about half way through the novel the author starts dropping pretty obvious clues about how the whole problem will be explained in the end, making the climax…well…anticlimactic.

Once you get to the end, the resolution just feels a bit condescending, especially from the perspective of an adult who is an experienced reader.  While kids may not have as much life experience or experience with how a plot develops, I really object to treating them like they are stupid and can’t figure things out.

Along with the simplistic plot, the only character that feels fully developed is the narrator and another character’s little sister.  The other three major players in the story feel very flat until the author decided to completely change him/her without any warning.

Overall, the book was frustrating to read, especially toward the end.  I was left wondering how Shulman went so wrong with such a great topic and premise.

Jan 03

The Maze Runner: First Impressions

So far, the first hundred pages have not impressed me.  Unfortunately, I may be a bit biased by the fact that I wasn’t that impressed with the film.  But I’ve heard so many people rave about the book (although mostly second hand), so I thought I’d give it a go.

First off, I totally get that Dashner is trying to show us the Glade from Thomas’s perspective, revealing only so much at a time, but it is completely driving me nuts.  While starting with a ton of exposition would really not be a good idea, I’m having a hard time with the idea that he shows up in this place and absolutely no one is willing to spend an hour or so with him to explain how things work and what they know about the place.  Really?  Absolutely everyone there is such a jerk or so wrapped up in their own work that they think the best way for a new person to adjust to this really weird situation is to figure it all out on his own?  Thomas basically spends the first hundred pages asking a lot of legitimate questions and being told to shut up.

And then there’s the fact that they have to do this every month.  Every month there is a new kid.  So why isn’t it someone’s job to acclimate the new guy?  And I don’t mean pair him up with the most recent new kid who also doesn’t seem to know anything except how to not piss anyone off (i.e. don’t ask questions).

So, why am I still reading?  Because so many people say it’s so great!  We’ve finally reached the maze, and I’m really hoping that this is where it takes off.  If exposition is not Dashner’s forte, maybe building suspense will be.

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