Monday, December 3, 2012

Guest Author: Ally Condie

On Friday, November 30, bestselling author Ally Condie came to Durham Academy as part of her national book tour in support of her new novel Reached. Condie spoke to a group of over two hundred 7th and 8th graders about the process of writing.  She talked about how she uses places, people, events and other inspirations significant to her to shape her novels.  During her entertaining presentation she encouraged the students to think about what they would like to create: music, writing, film, art, etc.  She then explained how to incorporate personal experiences into their work to make their creations richer and more meaningful.

As a former high school English teacher, Condie knows how to speak a large group of students.  She kept her audience engaged from start to finish with interesting stories and lots of pop culture references.  She also maintained a great sense of humor during her Q&A with the students, especially when asked if anyone blows up in her books.  I heard nothing but positive comments from both teachers and students following the program. Though her books are marketed primarily to teen girls, the male members of the audience listened intently and were curious about her novels.  A few boys came to check out Matched that afternoon.

Ms. Condie's appearance was made possible with the help of Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.  Quail Ridge provided Ms. Condie's novels for purchase following the presentation.  About 25 students from Kestral Heights Charter School and 15 students from Duke School were able to attend this event.  I was very happy to be able to welcome these students.  They helped make up a wonderful audience.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Ellen Obed's lovely new book is a series of vignettes in ode to her family's winter traditions in rural Maine.  The first ice appears in pail left in a barn.  It then spreads to the fields and streams, enticing the children to put on their skates.  The real pleasure comes with the garden ice.  In the coldest of winter, the narrator's family allows their summer garden to freeze over and become Bryan Gardens, an outdoor skating rink for the family and their friends.  Each night their father sprays down the ice so that young figure skaters and hockey players can skate on the rink every day after school.  Before Bryan Gardens thaws, the skaters put on an ice show that is enjoyed by the community.  Even as spring approaches and the ice disappears, the children continue to dream of ice as they wait for the next freeze. 

Twelve Kinds of Ice is beautifully written and reads very quickly; I finished it in less than twenty minutes. Though I can understand why this quiet novel has earned rave reviews, it does not do much for me.  I come from the South where we don't ice skate outdoors.  I can appreciate though how this book celebrates family traditions.  While I do not think many students in my community would read this book on their own or even with my recommendation, I could see reading it aloud in a 4th through 6th grade classroom.  It could be used as a prompt for having students to write about their own traditions.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Book Club Discusses Liar & Spy

Yesterday the Middle School Book Club met to discuss Rebecca Stead's newest novel Liar & Spy.  Though some of our members were disappointed with the ending, all eleven participants agreed that the novel is outstanding. We had a very thoughtful discussion about friendship, bullying, secrets, and lying.

In Liar & Spy, Georges moves into a new apartment building in Brooklyn when his father loses his job.  Georges is not too happy about having to adjust to living in a new neighborhood and to his mother working double shifts as a nurse.  To make matter worse, he has to deal with some pretty annoying bullies at school.  Life get more interesting when Georges meets Safer, a coffee-drinking, home schooled boy who lives in his new building.  Safer enlists Georges to help him spy on Mr. X, a mysterious man who wears all black and enters their building at strange hours carrying big bags.  Safer thinks Mr. X is up to something nefarious and is willing to break into his apartment to uncover information about this man.  Georges thinks Safer might be a little crazy.  How far is Georges willing to go to support Safer's farfetched ideas?  Liar & Spy shows that sometimes people tell lies not because they are bad people but because the truth is too difficult to face.

I highly recommend Liar & Spy for a 4th through 6th grade book club.  I came up with the discussion questions for this club meeting with the help of the great website Sweet on Books.

• Was there a character that who really liked or would want to be friends with?
• Why does Safer spend so much time in his apartment?
• Is Safer a good friend to Georges?
• Why was Georges so angry with Safer about Mr. X?
• Why did Georges come to Safer's rescue? What would you have done in that situation?
• Were you surprised to learn where Georges' mom had been or did you have any clues?
• Is the type of bullying experienced by Georges similar to what goes on in our school? In what ways?
• If you could choose your own name, what would you pick? How would it reflect your personality?
• Did you find any of the informational facts (taste, parrots, Seurat, Benjamin Franklin spelling) interesting?  Did they add to the story?

Our tentative plan for next book club is to discuss A Tale Dark and Grimm in December.


In the early 1970s, Ben’s parents are at the cutting edge of behavioral animal research.  When Ben’s father, Dr. Richard Tomlin, gets an appointment at a university that supports his proposed project for teaching American Sign Language to a chimpanzee, he moves his wife Sarah and 14 year-old son across Canada from Toronto to Victoria.  Ben is not too excited about this, nor is he thrilled when his mother brings home an 8-day-old chimpanzee that Ben sees as ugly.  They name the chimp Zan (after Tarzan).  While Richard will be using graduate students to teach Zan ASL, Sarah will be raising Zan as a human child as she writes a dissertation on cross-fostering.  Ben is expected to help with Zan’s care and to see the chimpanzee as his brother.  His reluctance soon wears off in the face of Zan’s undeniable charm.

At first the experiments seem to go well with Zan.  He masters about 65 ASL words, but there is some debate as to whether he really comprehends the language or if he is just mimicking what he sees.  Ben’s father tries harsh techniques while teaching Zan, including tethering him to a highchair for hours at a time.  Tensions quickly arise between the father, who sees Zan as a test subject, and the son, who believes that it is his responsibility to protect his little brother.  Ben struggles with the ethical and moral issues surrounding his father’s research and worries about what will happen to Zan if the project fails.

Kenneth Oppel’s novel is incredibly well researched. He draws from real-life experiments on simian intelligence, particularly the experiments with Washoe the chimpanzee. He accurately reflects the conflicting attitudes to animal research in the 1970s.   Half-Brother will definitely start conversations among young adult readers about the ethics of using animals.  Oppel’s novel shows that there is not a simple solution to the problems surrounding animal test subjects.  He leaves the reader to form his or her own opinions.

Half-Brother also explores the themes of family, school life and dating.  Ben’s tenuous relationship with Richard is fascinating and disheartening.  Ben appears to be a constant disappointment to his father. Richard is cold and thoughtless to his family through much of the novel.  I was just as interested in how these family dynamics would resolve as I was with what would happen to Zan.  Ben’s adjustment to a new school and his desire for the daughter of his father’s boss are equally interesting and believable.

Excellent writing, complex characters, and thought-provoking themes will keep readers engaged from start to finish.  Like many of Oppel’s novels, Half-Brother will appeal to a wide audience.  I highly recommend this book to grades seven and up.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Haiku Death Match

Today I had the pleasure of judging a haiku death match.  For homework, students in an 8th grade English class of 18 students had to write five haiku poems.  The next day they took those poems to battle.  The class was evenly divided into white and red teams. Each team had their own MC to pump up the audience and judges before each match.  They also told cute jokes and kept the program lively. In round one, eight students from the red team went head to head with another student from the white team.  After bowing to their opponent, the students presented one of their poems twice, and the 3 judges lifted red or white cards to announce the winner.  Winners from round one, proceeded to round two; the two winners from the second round entered the championship match.  The judges required the two finalists to present two haiku poems before crowning a winner.

This program was so much fun and the students were very engaged.  By the second round, the students were putting more emotion into their performances.  The teams conferred before each round to give helpful tips to their members who were still in the competition.  Even the shy students enjoyed being part of a team and performing their poems.  It was great to see so much enthusiasm and creativity!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

New Review: UNGIFTED

UngiftedDonovan Curtis has always had difficulty with impulse control, and if there is some kind of trouble at Hardcastle Middle School, you can be sure that he is in the middle of it.  His classmates voted him Most Likely to Wind Up in Jail two years in a row.  When he breaks a school statue that causes massive damage to the school gym, he expects that he will be in major trouble with the school superintendent; however, just the opposite happens.  Instead of being suspended or expelled, an administrative mix-up results in Donovan being sent to the Academy of Scholastic Distinction, a school for gifted students.  Donovan Curtis, IQ 112, definitely does not belong at the Academy.           
Donovan tries to fly under the radar at the Academy.  He hopes that if no one notices the error, he will never be punished or have to pay for the damage he caused.  He also does not want to disappoint his proud parents with the truth that he is not gifted.  However, it does not take long for his classmates and teachers at the Academy to know that something is not right with Donovan’s placement.  He works as hard as he can, but he is completely lost in his classes.  As his teachers try to find what, if any, talents Donovan has, his classmates see the benefit of having an ordinary student at their school for extraordinary children.  Donovan introduces his new friends to YouTube and class pranks.  He also comes up with a solution when a few of his peers are faced with going to summer school because they are lacking a credit in a human development course.  It doesn’t take long for the students at the Academy to become very attached to Donovan, and they will do anything, including cheating, to keep him at their school.

Gordan Korman has a gift for writing humorous novels for middle school boys, and Ungifted does not disappoint.  This charming page-turner is perfect for reluctant readers in grades 5-8. Boys who have trouble with always being on their best behavior will relate to Donovan’s inability to resist mischief.  His transformation from a troublemaker to thoughtful brother, son and friend is both believable and inspiring.

4 out of 5 stars
Grades 5 and up

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Pics!

Cutest nerds I have ever seen

I'm totally not impressed

Trapped in the locker?
Cold Ali

Monster and Hulk in the library

More monsters
Let's go Duke

Taking a break

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

New Review: Kepler's Dream

Kepler's DreamElla’s mother has been sick with cancer for many years. Now doctors want to try a dangerous stem cell transplant as a last ditch effort to save her life.   While she undergoes this treatment, Ella needs somewhere to stay.  Her parents are divorced, and her father has been absent for most of Ella’s life.  Because he will be busy leading fishing expeditions, he suggests that his daughter spend the summer with her grandmother, a woman Ella has never met.  Having no other options, Ella and her dog fly to Albuquerque and encounter a very formidable woman who lives in the desert without a television or the Internet.

Violet Von Stern has lived alone many years in her New Mexico adobe with only the companionship of her dog and numerous peacocks.  Her husband died long ago and her relationship with her son, Ella’s father, is poor.  Over the years, she has come to care more for her large library of rare books than her own family.  When Ella arrives, Violet does not know how to act.  She spends more time correcting Ella’s grammar and etiquette than helping her granddaughter cope the very real possibility that she may lose her mother. Ella refers to her grandmother as the General Major and calls the residence the Good Grammar Correctional Facility in the letters she writes to her mother.  It appears that Ella is in store for a miserable summer until a mystery arises. An incredibly valuable copy of Johannes Kepler’s Somnium is stolen from Violet’s library.  There are plenty of suspects, but Ella thinks she knows who is responsible; she just has to prove it.  As she investigates the theft, Ella learns the tragic details of her Violet’s life, and she starts to feel a bit of sympathy for her tough grandmother.

Juliet Bell’s debut novel is the kind of quiet story that is appreciated more by adults than by children.  Ella has a wonderful voice that is full of humor and insight.  In fact, all of the characters in Kepler’s Dream are well developed, as are the themes of family, books, and astronomy.   Where the book falls short is in the mystery, which is resolved without much interest.  Though Kepler’s Dream will not have mass appeal, fifth and sixth grade readers who enjoy novels like Walk Two Moons will appreciate this lovely book.

3.5 out of 5 stars
Grades 5-7

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Classroom Blogs at Durham Academy

Many of our teachers at DA are embracing blogging as a method of publishing student writing for an authentic audience.  Our teachers have created Edublog accounts with the help of our Digital Learning Coordinator, Karl Schaefer.  I have been so impressed with the very cool topics that students are writing about.

In 6th grade, Mrs. Donnelly's class is blogging about their grammar projects.  Students selected a grammar rule to present to their class, and then wrote a blog entry to explain what they learned from creating the presentation.  These projects are great mini-lessons that Mrs. Donnelly can refer back to all year.

In Mrs. Williams's 6th grade language arts class, students are reflecting about Durham Academy's new 1:1 iPad program.  Students are writing about how they use the iPads, what they like, and what has been challenging for them.  I love their honest reactions to the new program.  One student wrote, "Instead of getting my papers ruined or ripped in a binder, they are safe on the iPad. So far I think the iPads are really good learning tools."  Another student had mixed feeling about the initiative, "iPad is a helpful tool however, I like to use paper and pencils better, some things are too good to change!"

In fifth grade language arts, students review the books they are reading like The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and Artemis Fowl.  Finally, our French teacher has her students blog in French on various topics.  I have to use Google Translate to figure out what they have written!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Speed Booking

About every three weeks language arts classes come to the library to hear booktalks and check out books.  For each booktalk, I present six books that I think are excellent for the students' grade level.  While this program has been very successful and students report enjoying the booktalks, I felt I was barely exposing students to the abundance of great literature we have in our library.  Today we tried a new reading encouragement program with the sixth graders: speed booking.  The program, which is based on the principles of speed dating, is meant to introduce students to a wide array of books and get them excited about reading.

The set-up is so simple.  I pulled A LOT of books from our shelves that are appropriate for sixth grade.  I selected books that students might not notice, particularly non-fiction, and tried to focus on high interest titles.  I placed about 20 books in a pile on six tables.  Students in groups of four sat down at each table. They had two minutes to select a book from their pile and fill out a simple form.  I used Online Stopwatch to countdown the time; when the two minute timer went off, students had to get up, move to the next table clockwise, and start again. 

In just twelve minutes, every student had looked at over 100 books and given their opinions about six of them.  They then had the opportunity to discuss what they saw on the tables with their peers and check out anything that looked interesting.  The students really seemed to enjoy speed booking.  They were extremely well-behaved during the whole process and very interested in the books.  They loved having the opportunity to talk about what they saw with their friends after we were done.  Though no one was required to take a book, of the 21 students who came during the first class, 18 checked out a book from the tables before leaving the library.

The students have a file in their English class where they keep lists of books they might want to read.  They will place their speed reading forms there.

I will definitely continue using speed booking in addition to my regular booktalks.  It is a fun, easy method for energizing students around books and reading.  This program is very student-centered; my only involvement while they were here was to stop and start the stopwatch.  The only downside is that I will have to shelve a lot of books after the program is over, but I can live with that.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Using VoiceThread to Learn About the 1920s

To learn more about the major events of the 1920s, eighth graders came to the library to research a self-selected topic that they would then turn into a VoiceThread.  Students could pick topics from a list we created, or they could find a subject on their own.  I pulled books and articles from our Gale database to help with their research; we also provided students with a list of websites on the 1920s.  While in the library, students filled out a note-taking template that would serve as the framework for their VoiceThread narrative.  Many students used their iPad to research their topics. As they took notes and collected images for the project, students were required to cite all sources using MLA formatting.

After two days of compiling information, student went to the computer lab to create the VoiceThread. The initial setup of a VoiceThread is always a little difficult for students.  Knowing where to click to add to slides is confusing, but once they get in the flow, it is easy to record the slide show.  Our technology coordinator carefully walked them through the steps on their first day in the lab; students could also watch a video that would show them how to create a VoiceThread.  Many students chose to use their time with the desktop computers to annotate their slides using Skitch, import the slides into VoiceThread, and finalize their bibliography.  Several then used their iPads to record the voice portion at home or during study hall.  Students could create the entire VoiceThread using the VoiceThread app on their iPad, but many commented that it is easier to use the desktop version or a combination of both.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Halloween Decorations in the Library

We LOVE an occasion to decorate in library! A giant spider made out of paper, paper clips, and red glitter hangs over the entrance to welcome students to the library. Our little vampire stands inside the door.

Our bulletin board, decorated with items from the dollar store and headstones made out of Styrofoam,  offers students scary books.

Orange lights on the circulation desk gives a festive feel.

Special thanks to the wonderful library assistant, Kathy McCord, for putting such care into our displays.

Middle School Bookclub

The Middle School Bookclub will meet on November 14 at lunch in the library to discuss Rebecca Stead's fantastic new novel Liar and Spy.  Pizza will be served.  Middle School Bookclub is open to all grade levels, but students must sign up in advance to attend.  There are lots of copies of the book in the library available for check out.


A Game for Swallows: To Die, to Leave, to ReturnSet during the Lebanese Civil War of the 1980s, A Game for Swallows takes place one evening in an East Beirut apartment building.  Zeina and her little brother are waiting in the foyer of their apartment for their parents to return from visiting their grandmother in West Beirut.  Bombings and sniper fire intensify in their neighborhood, and their neighbors huddle with them in what is the safest location of their building.  As the neighbors arrive, Zeina tells how each came to live in the building and how the war has impacted them.  All seven neighbors hope that the bombings and gunfire will end soon, but know they must come up with a contingency plan if it does not.  Some realize that they cannot continue to survive in the middle of a war zone, but others are more fearful of moving to a foreign place.  As hours pass, everyone worries about Zeina’s parents, and Chucri, the building’s caretaker, debates whether or not to venture out in the fighting to find them.

Zeina Abirached’s graphic novel gives a glimpse of daily life in the middle of a war zone.  Though many of them have suffered greatly, the characters manage to stay optimistic while realistically dealing with the challenges that surround them.  The standout character is heroic yet tired Chucri who risks his life to bring food, water, and electricity to the residents of his building. Abirached shows the importance of community as neighbors come together to comfort and support one another through an incredibly difficult time.

A Game for Swallows is bound to draw comparisons to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but it really should not.  They are akin in their theme of survival during political upheaval.  Both are set in the Middle East and told through the eyes of children.  However, Abirached’s novel is very different in its single day setting.  You do not see the impact this war has on Zeina and her brother.   You get a snapshot of the characters, their fears and tension, but there is very little of the character development you see in Persepolis, which spans over years. A Game for Swallows is more plot-driven as the reader nervously waits with the neighbors to find out if the children’s parents are alive. Abirached also differs in her highly detailed, beautiful illustrations, which are much more expressive than those in Persepolis. 

I am surprised that School Library Journal recommends this graphic novel for grades 5 and up.  Though there is no objectionable material in this work, I doubt many fifth graders can empathize with the struggles of the adult characters.  Abirached gives ample historical notes and maps throughout the story, but the reader still needs some political and social context to fully appreciate this work.  For more older, more informed readers, A Game for Swallows gives a touching portrait of community during wartime.

4 stars
Grades 9 and up

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


The TurningIn a modern retelling of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Francine Prose’s new novel The Turning transports readers to a haunted island.  Jack has been hired by a wealthy man to babysit his niece and nephew, Miles and Flora, for two months until school starts.  The children, whose parents died when they were very young, are living with are living in their family estate on an isolated island with the family cook, Mrs. Gross.  Despite the fact that there is no Internet, television, or phone reception on the island, Jack takes the job in hopes of earning money to go to the same college as his girlfriend, Sophie.   The novel is narrated in the letters Jack and Sophie send each other.

From the ferry ride to his new job, Jack receives ominous warnings about his destination.  An elderly couple tells him that nearly a hundred years earlier, a young couple from the island tried to run away and elope because the woman’s father did not approve of the match; tragically, their boat capsized and they drown, leaving the island with a haunted legacy.  Jack finds this story spooky, but he is reassured about his decision to come when he meets Mrs. Gross.  She is a warm, calm and attractive woman who convinces Jack that there is no merit to the wild rumors about Crackstone's Landing. He finds Miles and Flora to be very different from most children but well behaved and friendly enough.   As Jack settles into life on the island though, he senses that something is not right.  He is troubled by the strange stares that the children constantly give each other, the locked room in the house, and the two strangers only he can see on the island. As he tries to get to the bottom of these mysteries, he discovers that there is indeed something evil at Crackstone's Landing.

If you had not read Henry James’s original story, you probably would find The Turning to be a spooky, enjoyable horror story. For those who are familiar with The Turn of the Screw, this interpretation will be a disappointment.  Prose never fully captures James’s creepiness and the ending falls flat.  The problem is in the epistolary format, which does not allow the tension to build.  The pacing feels too rushed; one minute Jack is fine and in the next letter he is completely mad.  Though there are plenty of scary images, reader doesn’t have the opportunity to feel Jack’s fear and terror.

Despite the shortfalls, middle grade readers looking for ghost story will enjoy The Turning.  Recommend it to those you liked Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children or The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray.

3 out of 5 stars
Grades 7 and up

Monday, October 15, 2012


 SafekeepingIn a departure from her verse novels, Karen Hesse’s new dystopian book, Safekeeping, envisions could happen if our government lost the respect and control of its people.  After the president is assassinated, seventeen-year-old Radley immediately returns from volunteering at an orphanage in Haiti to the United States.  She is unable to contact her parents in Vermont before she leaves.  When she lands in Connecticut, she finds that the government, ruled by the American People’s Party, has instituted martial law.  Her parents are not waiting for her at the airport, and she cannot cross state borders in a bus or car without authorization.  With no one to call, Radley feels must walk from the airport in Manchester to her Brattleboro home; however, when she arrives after days of walking on her own, her parents are nowhere to be found.  Radley fears they have been taken into custody because of their opposition to the government, and she believes that the police will come for her soon as well.  Convinced that her life is in danger if she remains in the United States, Radley takes off on foot for the Canadian border.  With little money and no food, she must scavenge out of dumpsters to eat and sleep in the woods at night.  Along the way she meets another girl, Celia, who is also traveling north with her dog.  The girls journey together and slowly develop a friendship as they struggle to survive.

Karen Hesse is a very skilled writer, but I don’t think the dystopian genre fits her well.  Safekeeping is an interesting novel that offers a lot for young readers to enjoy, but there are too many unanswered questions to fully embrace this book.  Why did the American People’s Party come into power? Why was the president assassinated?  Why is it so easy for Radley to fly into the United States but so difficult for her to get a ride home?  Given that Radley is very na├»ve, why would her parents let her volunteer at a young age in a dangerous third world country on her own? There is also a problem with all the photography in the novel.  Hesse includes her own photographs, but they often distract more than add to the narrative.  Finally, the ending feels abrupt and artificial. 

Safekeeping does have certain strengths though.  This book is a page-turner.  You want to find out what happened to Radley’s parents and if the girls will find safety. Hesse develops the complicated friendship between Radley and Celia in a slow, believable fashion so that you care about what happens to them. Finally, unlike most dystopian novels, there is very little violence or profanity.

Safekeeping is a good novel, but it will not be remembered as one of Hesse’s great works.  I applaud her attempts at a new genre, but I hope that she will return to the historical verse novels that she does so well.

3 out of 5 stars
Grades 6 and up

Friday, October 12, 2012


In Invincible Microbe, Jim Murphy and his wife Alison Blank chronicle the history of one of the greatest killers in world history: tuberculosis.  They trace TB back to microorganisms in African soil and water 3 million years ago and follow it to the frightening drug-resistant strains of the disease that threaten us today.  Along the way, they explain how TB attacks the body, how it is spread, and the bizarre attempts throughout history of treating the disease.  Murphy and Blank make excellent use photographs and first-hand accounts to enrich the narrative. Readers obtain a complete picture of how tuberculosis has impacted society and what having the disease is like for the individual.

Jim Murphy is a seasoned non-fiction writer.  In his books American Plague, Truce, Blizzard and The Real Benedict Arnold he has shown that he can both inform and engage young readers.  Invincible Microbe continues the trend.  He and Alison Blank have crafted a fascinating tale that sustains younger readers’ interest.  They provide just enough information to thoroughly educate the reader without becoming to dull.  This book would work very well for classrooms looking for STEM titles. Students will enjoy discussing the various attempts to cure tuberculosis, and they can debate what needs to be done to combat the disease today.

4 out of 5 stars
Recommended for grades 5 and up

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Middle School Bookclub Discusses WONDER

Our middle school bookclub had its first meeting of the year today to discuss R.J. Palacio's novel Wonder.  I selected this title over the summer after reading an advance copy from Netgalley.  The book has a compelling main character and lots of material for discussion.  In Wonder, Auggie Pullman just wants to be considered a normal kid, but he was born with a genetic defect that caused him to have severe facial deformities.  In trying to protect Auggie, his parents have home-schooled him, but they realize that they cannot shelter their son forever. The book begins with Auggie enrolling in a school for the first time in 5th grade. Told from numerous perspectives, Wonder follows Auggie's ups and downs as he tries to get others to see him as he sees himself: just an ordinary guy.

The lively discussion group consisted of twelve girls and two boys in grades five and six.  I moderated the conversation along with one eighth grade student.  Though some teachers wanted to join our group, I wanted to invite just students for the initial meeting to allow everyone to feel comfortable speaking in a group.  Students had to sign up in advance, and I provided pizza.

The overall consensus was that Wonder is a great book.  We had a lot to discuss, and everyone had opinions.  Students loved Auggie, and many stated they are better equipped to approach people with physical differences now that they have read this story.  Wonder is an excellent novel for teaching acceptance and works well as a bookclub selection.

Here are our discussion questions:
    1.   Why did you decide to read this book?

2.   Did you have a picture of Auggie’s face in your mind while reading the book? Have you ever encountered a person with facial deformities?  If so, how did you react?  Would you behave differently now that you have read Auggie’s story.

3.    Did you find Auggie an interesting character?  What did you like or dislike about his personality.

4.  Do you think Auggie handled his bullying well?  Do you think he should have behaved differently?  Do you think Summer should have stood up more for Auggie?

5.   Many reviewers have criticized Daisy’s death.  Was it necessary for Auggie’s dog to die? Did the death add to the story?

6.   How did you react the use of letters, emails, Facebook posts and text in the story? 

7.   The story is told through many different perspectives.  Is there a particular perspective that you liked or one that you did not like?

8.   Is Mrs Albans’ attitude towards Auggie different from the way that children treat him?  Do you think there should have been a chapter from Mrs Albans’ or Julian’s perspective?  Do you think she is correct in saying that asking ‘ordinary’ children, such as Julian, to befriend Auggie places a burden on them?

9.  What did you think about the use of precepts in the novel.  Was there one that you really liked? Do you have any precepts of your own?

10.  Many people believe this novel is a frontrunner for the Newbery medal.  Do you think it deserves to win?

Our November bookclub title will be Rebecca Stead's Liar and Spy.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Review: Perks of Being a Wallflower

In honor of Banned Books Week, I  reread Stephen Chbosky’s cult classic The Perks of Being a Wallflower to see how it has stood up over time.  In this short, epistolary novel, Charlie is a socially awkward teenager, fearful of entering high school.  His only friend has recently committed suicide, and Charlie feels his family does not really understand him.  He becomes friends with Sam and her stepbrother Patrick, a pair of seniors who take Charlie under their wing and introduce him to all that is ugly and beautiful in high school.  Charlie’s coming-of-age journey also includes a young teacher who supplies him with great literature to read and write about outside of class. As Charlie watches the world spinning around him, he struggles with his ability to “participate.”  His lingering depression coupled with a fear of upsetting others make it difficult for Charlie to figure out who he is and what he wants in life, but literature and friendship help him grow in small, believable ways.

My feelings for this novel have changed little over the years, though I have developed a greater appreciation for Chbosky.  I was in college when Perks came out.  While I thought the writing was a little too simplistic, I felt that I understood Charlie. I now realize how adept Chbosky is in his character development. Charlie’s letters sound completely authentic, even today. He never came across to me as autistic, as some have characterized him, just really bright, observant, and kind. His lack of friends, somewhat cold parents, and self-absorbed siblings explain his nativity. He loved his aunt, and when she died, he was left emotionally stunted.   I did not think Chbosky went overboard with the teen issues.  A lot happens in this novel (suicide, physical abuse, homosexuality, drug abuse), but Charlie is just observing the world around him.  He has sought out the most interesting people in his school, and he is better than most of us at paying attention to what is really happening. The overall message is fairly simple: be yourself and don’t be afraid to tell others how you feel.

This novel is not life changing for me, but I do think it’s insightful and interesting. For the past 10 years, it has been among the top 10 most challenged/banned books in the United States, and my rereading has convinced me Perks is worth a good censorship fight. The issues presented are handled realistically without judgment.  I look forward to seeing the film adaptation.

3.5 out of 5 stars
Grades 9 and up

Thursday, September 27, 2012


Code Name Verity
by Elizabeth Wein

Maddie Brodart and “Queenie” AKA “Verity” AKA “you’ll bloody find out later” meet while working as wireless operators for the Royal Air Force during World War II.  Maddie is an experienced pilot but has limited opportunities to fly because of her gender; Queenie, who is super cool under pressure, is fluent in German.  Their friendship sparks when a confused, wayward German pilot flies into British airspace, thinking he is over France.  He came under fire, his crew was killed and he lost an engine.  Maddie gets his distress signal and coaches Queenie to give him the information he needs to neatly land the plane and promptly be apprehended.  This impressive feat does not go unnoticed by their superiors.  When they are approached by a Special Operations Executive to join covert operations, Maddie gets the opportunity to fly transport planes, and Queenie can use her natural acting ability to become a secret agent. What more could a descendant of William Wallace want?  Both eagerly sign up, but the exciting adventure they envision turns into a terrible nightmare.

Code Name Verity opens with Queenie being held by Nazi interrogators in Ormaie, France.  Her captors give her a pen and paper so that she can provide them any information that may be useful.  After being brutally tortured, she does give them sets of wireless code and uses the paper to slowly tell them her story. Her narrative focuses mostly on her friendship with Maddie, but she drops a few details about herself and her horrific imprisonment.  Queenie documents how she and Maddie came into Ormaie and how she was captured. Though some may consider Queenie a turncoat, she does not give up her information easily.  Using her intellect, Scottish defiance, and cool resolve, Queenie keeps her interrogators and the reader questioning who is really in control.

It is very difficult to write about this unique novel without giving away its beautiful plot twists.  There are hints in Queenie’s narrative that she might not be the most reliable narrator, but Wein weaves a much more complex story than the reader anticipates.  This book is not an easy read.  For the first 57 pages, you’re not really sure who is the narrator.  There are lots of literary and historical allusions to Kipling, William Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots, Horatio Nelson, and Peter Pan, just to name a few.  There is also a tremendous amount of detail about flying and airplanes, which threaten to bore the reader to tears.  The narration is also often problematic. It’s hard to believe a torture victim, soon to be executed, would waste so much time and paper on pointless descriptions.  I almost gave up on this novel, but then those twists kicked in and I was hooked.  Code Name Verity is a book to be read multiple times and studied.  Much like reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, if you can put up with the sometimes confusing and seemingly superfluous details, you will be rewarded with an amazing story.

Code Name Verity is tale of friendship, loyalty and sacrifice. Using heroic female protagonists, it shows the important role women played in WWII.  Wein’s novel is not perfect, but it is very, very good.  How often do you finish a young adult novel and feel the need to immediately reread it?  I’d say that’s an impressive feat that should not go unnoticed.

4.5 out of 5 stars
Recommended for grades 10 and up

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Venturing into the Ebook Frontier