Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Review: PINNED

Told from alternative viewpoints, Sharon Flake’s new novel explores the relationship between high school students Adonis and Autumn. Due to a birth defect, Adonis was born without legs and is wheelchair-bound. He compensates for his physical disabilities by striving for academic perfection; he is much more interested in receiving praise and admiration from his teachers than forming relationships with his peers. On the other end of the spectrum is Autumn, a weak student with an enormous personality. Autumn is a star on the boy’s wrestling team, but she struggles mightily in the classroom with both reading and mathematics. She says she is attracted to smart guys, and Autumn has her sights on Adonis. She is convinced with enough effort, her effervescent personality and her deep devotion will win Adonis over. She has a big uphill battle though, because Adonis wants nothing to do with a girl who can barely read. He rejects her harshly throughout the novel, but Autumn keeps coming back for more.

Pinned does an excellent job of showing the powerful role family background plays in shaping a child’s opportunities and values. Adonis’s mother is an educated woman who has taught her son the importance of doing well at school. Her efforts to prove to her son that he can accomplish anything have resulted though in Adonis’s cocky over-confidence. Autumn’s parents are both high school dropouts who also struggle with reading. Only recently have they come to terms with their daughter’s academic troubles. Not wanting her to follow the same path they feel they were forced down, they try to practice reading together as a family. Unfortunately, the damage is already done and Autumn despises reading so much that she is very reluctant to try to improve.

Though her novel has some strengths, Flake’s message about relationships is deeply disturbing. Pinned shows young readers if you pursue something hard and long enough, eventually you will get what you want, even in relationships. Autumn stalks Adonis throughout the novel. She sends him endless text messages, follows him through the halls, sits in his lap, and kisses him without his consent. The reader is supposed to believe that this is okay because deep, deep down (so deep he doesn’t consciously know it) Adonis wants Autumn’s affection. Imagine if the genders were reversed in this novel. A strong, muscular boy on the wrestling team relentlessly pursing and forcing himself upon a crippled girl? Autumn’s friends and family would be seeking a restraining order. Autumn’s acceptance of Adonis’s behavior towards her is also unsettling. She is seen as a pure, loyal character because she accepts his constant rebukes. Adonis belittles and insults Autumn at every turn, but that has little effect on her feelings towards him. Though Adonis and Autumn change the way they feel towards each other, they do not apologize for their behavior.

I loved Flake’s novel The Skin I’m In and I had high hopes for Pinned. Though I liked the way Flake portrayed the academic issues that many students, particularly African American students, face, her depiction of adolescent romance left me feeling deeply disappointed.

1 out of 5 stars
Grades 7 and up

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Middle School Bookclub Discusses THE FALSE PRINCE

Yesterday the Middle School Bookclub held his monthly meeting to discuss Jennifer Nielsen's fabulous fantasy novel The False Prince.  In the book, three orphans are adopted by Connor, one of the king's advisors.  King Eckbert, Queen Erin and the crowned prince Darius were recently found poisoned, and Connor is trying to keep their deaths a secret to buy himself some time.  Years ago the king's youngest son, Prince Jaron, was believed to have been killed by pirates at sea, though his body was never found.  Connor is hoping to quickly transform one of the orphans to masquerade as the lost prince.  He believes that by claiming he has found the rightful heir to the throne, the country will not break out into a civil war and he will be able to control the kingdom through his false prince.  The story is told from the viewpoint of Sage, one of the orphans.  Unlike Rodin and Tobias, Sage does not want to become the prince; however, he knows that Connor will pick the boy who is the most convincing match for Prince Jaron and the other boys will probably be murdered to hide the secret.  Sage has no choice but to go along with Conner's scheme because he has no intention of dying.

This action packed novel was a favorite with our bookclub.  They loved the humor, adventure and mystery.  Many of our members commented on how well the characters were developed, especially Connor, and they can't wait to read the sequel, which already has a long waitlist.  The False Prince is an excellent pick for middle school bookclubs.  It appeals to both boys and girls across many grade levels. It is also a quick read with plenty of topics to discuss.

Discussion Questions
  1. Which of the characters did you like the best and why?
  2. Why did Connor not let Latamer go?
  3. Why do you think Sage felt so strongly about Latamer?
  4. Did you think Connor's plan would work or did you see any possible problems?
  5. Why does Sage trust Imogen so much when he doesn't seem to trust anyone else?
  6. How did you feel about the way Connor treated the Errol and the other servant boys?
  7. Did you see any clues about Sage's real identity?
  8. How did Mott figure out the truth about Sage?
  9. What do you think would have happened if Connor had discovered the truth about Sage sooner?
  10. What do you predict will happen in the sequel?
  11. How does The False Prince compare to other fantasy novels you have read?  
Next month's bookclub selection is Slob by Ellen Potter.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

6th Grade Animal Research

For many years every sixth grader at Durham Academy has been required to research an animal for sixth grade science using multiple sources.  They pick an animal, take notes online, cite their sources and then write a first person report from the animal's perspective.  In the past, I have not been happy with students taking their notes online because it often led to cutting and pasting long passages without ever processing the information available in the source.  Also, some students would take all their information from one source and just cite three more without ever using them.

This year I encouraged the science teachers to give the students a note-taking template that I created and have the students take written notes.  The first day of the project we had the students find four strong sources.  Most students selected our animal encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Britannica Online and/or WorldBook Online,  a website, and a book in the library about their animal.  The second day we cited all our sources on Google Drive.  Today the students started taking notes, and it was amazing to see how relaxed and engaged they were with their research.  Using their iPads and the books, they could have all of their resources in front of them at once.  The four-page template packet helped them organize their information easily.  Everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing and how to do it; that goes a long way to avoiding the stress and anxiety that can come with a research project.  We required the students to show us their notes at the end of each page of the template before they started on the next page.  This allowed us to make sure that they had detailed notes and they were using all of their resources.  The student took excellent notes and stayed on task the entire period.  I anticipate that they will be done with their research much sooner than we planned. 

After they finish the research, they will still write their report from the animal's perspective.  The finished product will include a cover illustration that they draw, the two page report, a bibliography, and a note about the author. 

For this project and this grade level, I think the iPad worked best as an information resource rather than a place to record notes.  Handwritten notes ensured that students were taking complete notes, using multiple sources, and avoiding plagiarism.  Once the students complete their template, they can then use that document to develop their typed report on the iPad.

Monday, January 14, 2013


Twelve-year-old Fern is often seen as the most dependable, normal member of her family. Her father is solely focused on the success of their family restaurant and is often coming up with embarrassing advertising schemes that involve the entire family. Her older sister Sara is unhappy working in the restaurant after all her friends leave for college, and she is quick to take her anger out on those around her. Her older brother Holden is struggling with his sexuality and faces bullying on a daily basis. Her younger brother Charlie embraces being the wild baby of the family and is always in need of a good cleaning. Finally, her mother, overwhelmed with family and work responsibilities, spends an excessive amount of time meditating in order to find her inner peace. Fern loves her family but has no problem admitting that they drive her crazy. She just wants her parents to notice Holden’s problems and see how badly Charlie needs a bath. She also would not mind if someone paid a little attention to her as well. Jo Knowles’s novel starts off as a realistic coming-of-age story; however, when a tragedy strikes this family, the themes change to grief, blame, and acceptance. 

For many See You at Harry’s will be a tearjerker. Knowles creates well-developed realistic characters that deserve sympathy. Their journey is devastating, but the novel offers hope and catharsis by the end. This book also touches on the issues LGBT teenagers face in a very non-controversial manner. See You at Harry’s is recommended for all libraries, especially for librarians looking to add LGBT titles to a middle school collection.

4 Stars
Grades 7 and up

Friday, January 11, 2013


Jennifer Strange has a lot of responsibilities for a 15 year-old orphan.  She manages Kazam Mystical Arts Management, an employment agencies for magicians.  She has to schedule work for the her 9 employees who are still capable of producing magic, and she must provide a home for the other 48 sorcerers, movers, soothsayers, shifters, weather-mongers, carpeteers, and other mystical artisans living in Kazam who are no longer licensed or powerful enough to work.   She has to deal with a lot of delicate egos and over-the-top personalities.  As people rely more on technology than magic, finding work for her magicians has been a challenge and magical power seems to be drying up.  If Jennifer did not already have enough on her plate, numerous pre-cognitive magicians have received a vision that Maltcassion, the last dragon in the Ununited Kingdoms, will die by the sword of a Dragonslayer on Sunday at noon and Jennifer will be the Dragonslayer to do the deed.

Jennifer has no idea why she has been chosen as the last Dragonslayer.  Maltcassion has done nothing wrong, and she cannot see herself murdering such as noble creature.  However everyone, including King Snodd, can’t wait for to her kill “the beast” and open his massive lands for the taking.  Much excitement has built around Jennifer; in less than a week she is on the cover of every newspaper, she offered lucrative endorsement deals, two people attempt to kill her, and she receives fifty-eight offers of marriage.  All she wants is to return to her not-so-normal life and to learn the link between dragons and the dwindling supply of magic in the world.  Unfortunately, she cannot turn her back on destiny.

Jasper Fforde’s novel is an enjoyable fantasy with a very likeable main character. In the mists of a unique story about magic and dragons, Fforde manages to infuse commentary on modern commercialization, greed, reality television, and urbanization.  In a world where people are only looking out for themselves and doing whatever it takes to get ahead, Jennifer is one of the few intelligent, ethical, and genuinely kind people in the Ununited Kingdoms.  She remains true to her high morals throughout the novel, and she is the book’s strength. The best sections of The Last Dragonslayer are the quiet, thoughtful conversations between Jennifer and Maltcassion.   The weakness for me is in Fforde’s humor, which is a little too quirky.  I felt myself groaning and rolling my eyes with all the buffoon characters.  Thankfully, Fforde does not go overboard with the whimsical comedy. For students who like Terry Pratchett and Diane Wynne-Jones, The Last Dragonslayer is recommended.

3.5 stars
For grades 6 and up

Thursday, January 10, 2013

7th Grade History Research

I'm getting ready for the 7th grade history research project by pulling over 200 books on non-European, non-American history subjects and then organizing them.  Students start selecting topics tomorrow.  Hopefully looking at the resources first will help more than just picking a topic from a list.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Next Bookclub Meeting: THE FALSE PRINCE

The Middle School Bookclub will meet next Wednesday, January 16, at lunch to discuss The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen.  I'm sending invitations to students who have checked out the book.

Check out this wonderful book trailer to learn more about this exciting novel.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Non-fiction Book Project

Today the 5th graders came to the library to select a book of their choice for their non-fiction project.  This project will incorporate reading non-fiction, generating questions while reading, web searching and creating a Keynote presentation. In preparation of them coming, I pulled over 200 books across our entire non-fiction collection that are high interest and under 200 pages.  I had to borrow a few tables to display them all.  When the students arrived, we walked to each table while I gave a mini-booktalk on some of the really interesting titles such as The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party, Dark Game, Spies of Mississippi, and The Man-Eating Tigers of the Sundarbans.  I then had the students sit at one of the tables, with no more than 3 students to a table.  They had to pick at least one book from the table and write down the title, call number, subject, and mark their level of interest on a form that I provided them.  They would have 2 minutes to do this and then move to the next table.  I used Online Stopwatch to time them.  By the time they were done, the students had made notes on at least 8 books.  They then could check out their favorite book.  Every student was easily able to find a non-fiction book that appealed to him or her; most of the students were really excited about their selection.

These 5th graders will now have three weeks to read their book.  As they are reading, they will generate questions about what they are reading on sticky notes.   Many of these questions will most likely be answered as they continue to read the book, but some their questions will require them to search the Internet.  We are using this unit to discuss web-searching techniques and finding reliable web sources; they will have time in class to search for answers to their questions.  After they have finish reading the book and answering their questions, they will select their four best questions, which they will explain to their classmates in a five to seven minute Keynote presentation.