Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Underneath

1. Bibliography: Appelt, Kathi. The Underneath. New York: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, 2008.

2. Genre: Fantasy/ Young Adult Fiction

3. Awards:

a. National Book Award Finalist

b. ALA Newbery Medal

c. ALA Newbery Honor Book

d. ALA Notable Children's Books

e. CCBC Choices (Cooperative Children's Book Council)

f. NYPL 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing

4. Synopsis:

In this beautifully written book, a story is interwoven between a cat, a hound dog, a horrible man, and mythical creatures. A pregnant calico cat is abandoned at the opening of the novel, and desperately searching for a place to have her family. She finds that place in the “Underneath” which she shares with a caring, yet unlikely friend, hound dog that sings the blues. Unfortunately, kittens cannot be content to live their lives in the underneath, and venture out, which may prove to be the most dangerous, yet inevitable, decision of their lives. Interwoven in this story is a tale of a mythical and eternal struggle between love and hatred, posited in the brilliant ancient tale of the lamia.

5. Needs of adolescents:
Appelt never gives in to the notion that to write a fantastic young adult novel a write must ascribe to certain formulaic, predictable scenarios. This book will allow young people to enjoy a tale told in the safety of a fantasy world that will allow them to search their ideas about love, loss and commitment without directly equating them to the situations they face. It also engages in gorgeous language and vocabulary that will showcase the sheer beauty of language.

6. Possible Classroom Uses:
I think this book would work well as a read aloud, a class novel or for a small group. I think it would open the doors nicely into a study of Watership Down, or other complex fantasy stories.

7. Appropriate Age Range
The Underneath can be read on many different levels. I think that the language and themes may be lost on younger readers, but it would still be an engaging read for children as young as 6th grade (although they will struggle to comprehend some of the language and certainly miss the magnificent literary allusions). I will have this book on my shelf as a high school English teacher.

8. Personal Reactions
I was unsure how I would react to this book at first. Before I began my quest to read the best YA Lit, I didn’t consider myself a fantasy book lover. However, this book is a book I will read over and over again. With such a poignant story, and brilliant literary allusions, I could not put it down. Needless to say, I loved it. Without the harsh language and eminent death many YA books rely on to move their readership, The Underneath tells a remarkably soft yet gritty story through the safety of brave kittens and a loyal hound dog. I am waiting to give to my daughter until she is older, but I am really looking forward to discussing and sharing this book with her!

It's been a long time

Okay, so I survived my MAT year, and I now have a Masters Degree and a teaching position. It is my goal to update this blog with some of the best books I have read this year. Although I have been to busy to update, I am hoping to at least get some posts up soon.

Have a great summer everyone!

Sunday, July 20, 2008


1. Bibliography: Kadohata, Cynthia (2004). Kira-kira. New York, NY: Aladdin .
Genre and Awards:
Young Adult/Japanese American
Newberry Award Winner
Katie and Lynn are sisters, and best friends. Their family moves from Iowa to Georgia in order for her parents to find jobs after their Asian grocery store fails. In Georgia they are treated like freaks—no one understands if they are black or white, and no one wants to accept them, but at least they have each other. When Lynn gets sick, Katie is forced to deal with her sister’s illness, poverty and ostracism all by herself.

4. Characters:
Katie is the main character. She matures throughout this novel, beginning when she is five years old until she is around 12. The novel also incorporates Lynn’s voice through diary entries. Katie and Lynn share a unique relationship, but the novel explores honestly dealing with a sibling who is ill. Katie explores her feelings of fear, anger and sadness in a way that is real and relatable.

5. Plot:
When Katie’s family moves to Georgia from Iowa, they are plunged into poverty and racism. Kira-kira means glittering in Japanese, and Katie’s older sister, Lynn is always finding kira-kira in everything. This book is about Katie’s journey through desolation to figure out the true theme of her life and her relationship with her family, especially her sister.

6. Needs of adolescents:
This book would connect with girls who are trying to figure out where they belong. It would also be good for anyone who is experiencing death or the illness of someone close to them. I also think the book deals with class issues and cultural issues that many people may not even be aware of.

7. Possible Classroom Uses:
I think this book would be a great introduction into cultural stories, like The Pearl. I also think it would be interesting to explore language, for example, “kira-kira” means glittering or shining, but Katie and Lynn use it to describe many things that their mother doesn’t agree with. This could open up many avenues about words and meanings, phrases, different cultural language, figurative language and many other concepts that are swirling in my brain right now! I think this could work as a real-aloud, class novel, reading group or independent recommendation.

8. Appropriate Age Range
Middle and junior high students would really enjoy this book.

9. Personal Reactions:
I liked this book because it is really the first “girl” book I have attempted. While I usually like more action, this book was moving. The realistic look at illness and grief was particularly touching. I liked the fact that Katie was not afraid to admit her feelings, and I think a lot of kids can identify with feeling one thing when they know they should be feeling something else.

Harlem Stomp!

1. Bibliography: Hill, Laban Carrick (2003). Harlem stomp: a cultural history of the harlem renaissance. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group.

2. Genre and Awards:
Young Adult/Non-Fiction
National Book Award Finalist

3. Synopsis:
This is a volume studying the events of the Harlem Renaissance. Laban Carrick Hill’s carefully researched book offers pictures, excerpts from music and poetry, timelines, letters and many other multi-media examples of one of the most important events in American history.

4. Characters:
As this book is non-fiction, there are really no characters. However, the book details the struggles and successes of many great Harlem Renaissance icons, like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neal Hurston, Duke Ellington, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, and many others.

5. Plot:
The book is organized in a rough time line, but also thematically by major movements of the Harlem Renaissance, such as art, music, literature and other cultural movements.

6. Needs of adolescents:
I loved this book. I think the Harlem Renaissance is an overlooked part of American history in many classrooms. Also, this book is easy to read and could be a great bridge into the scary prospect of research.

7. Possible Classroom Uses:
I can see using this book to connect young readers to texts by researching events and people. It could also connect music and engage thinkers in the ways in which history, music, literature and art are all connected.

8. Appropriate Age Range
This book would be an asset for middle, junior and high school students.

9. Personal Reactions:
When I picked this book up, I was enthralled by the sheer beauty of it. I couldn’t wait to dive in. I learned many things about some of my favorite authors and art. I found it extremely readable, and not nearly as scary as other research materials. My mind was filled with ways to use this book as a jumping off place for some of my favorite literature.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

King of the Mild Frontier - An Ill-Advised Autobiography

1. Bibliography: Crutcher, Chris (2003). King of the mild frontier: an ill-advised autobiography. New York, NY: Greenwillow

2. Genre and Awards:
Young Adult/Non-Fiction
ALA Best Book for Young Adults

3. Synopsis:

In his autobiography, Chris Crutcher reveals how he came to be a banned book writer. His stories about growing up in a small town are so funny, yet tender. He tackles tough subjects like religion and death with a tenderness and vulnerability that make this one great book!

4. Characters:
Of course, the main character is Chris Crutcher. However, his older brother is integral in the more funny moments of his awkward adolescence. His parents and his grandfather also make important contributions to the creation of a banned book writer.

5. Plot:
Through often hilarious, yet touching vignettes about his journey growing from a five-year old boy to a fifty (something) year old man, Chris Crutcher reveals how he became the man he is today. He reveals a lot about how he is inspired to write his books, and what he thinks the meaning of life is.

6. Needs of adolescents:
Many adolescent boys would connect to an acne-prone, masturbating, sort of in the middle of the popularity scene, boy. Chris reveals some of the more embarrassing parts of his adolescence that most kids will connect with. He is honest about both being bullied and being a bully himself. He talks about religion honestly and openly. He also reveals painful things about his own family, that lead back to his main question, “…why do bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. It came from my inner editor, that part of me that forces the wordy writer in me to dump ninety percent of all modifiers: Ask both questions again, minus the adjectives. ‘Why do things happen to people?’ Just because” (Crutcher 166-167). Chris Crutcher’s book will connect with adolescents who love his book, and who maybe don’t like it so well. They can understand his writing process, and (especially in Arkansas) connect with the small town mentality and the just get by attitude.

7. Possible Classroom Uses:

This book would be an excellent read aloud book for a junior high or high school classes, with some possible editing needed. It would also be great for individual readers and small group discussions. It could lead to thinking about creating autobiographies, and sharing funny stories. It could also lead to important discussions about censorship, and why or why not Chris Crutcher should or should not be banned, and what censorship means.

8. Appropriate Age Range

King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography would be great for junior high or high school students, and their parents.

9. Personal Reactions:
This book had me laughing out loud! I could identify with many of his escapades as ones from my family. His real look at religion was refreshing and honest. Chris Crutcher’s voice is honest and revealing. While I was reading, I was thinking about how a classroom in a small school would react to some of the chapters, and how much they would enjoy this book! One review I read about this book called it the best adolescent lit book for adults if they only knew about it. I think parents and kids would really enjoy this together. I highly recommend it!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bud, Not Buddy

1. Bibliography: Curtis, Christopher P (1999). Bud, Not Buddy. New York, NY: Random House Children's Books.

2. Genre and Awards:

Young Adult/ Historical Fiction

Newberry Award 2000

Coretta Scott King Award 2000

3. Synopsis:

Bud, not Buddy, Caldwell is an orphan with unfortunate luck. Bud has a suitcase he carries around filled with secret things that his mother left him. After being placed in a terrible "home," he sets out on an adventure to find his father, armed only with his suitcase, his wits, and his rules for life--Bud Caldwell’s Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself.

4. Characters:
Bud, not Buddy, Caldwell is the main character. He is an orphan during the Great Depression. He has many harrowing experiences and is a tenacious ten-year old. Through the novel, he encounters many people on his journey. Although other characters make only brief appearances, they are important in propelling the narrative forward. He encounters a community in a “Hooverville” who help Bud on his way (and he even has his first kiss.) In the ending, Bud encounters a group of musicians, Herman E. Calloway and the Dusky Devastators, who are an endearing group of rag-tag blues musicians who really seem to care about Bud and are determined to help Bud find his place in the world.

5. Plot:
Bud Caldwell is in an orphanage at the beginning, but he is quickly sent to a “home” for the summer. His experience is not a very good one, and he sets out to travel from Flint, Michigan to Grand Rapids to find his “father.” Through is journey, he faces hunger, racism and the ravages of the Great Depression that affected the nation. This book has many unexpected twists that will have young readers cheering and on the edge of their seats.

6. Needs of adolescents:
Bud, Not Buddy has many historical references, including a reference to Hoovervilles and blues music. Bud also deals with abuse and the need to fit in. While it does not directly deal with segregation, the book has many insights into what the world was like during segregation, and would be a great jumping off point for classroom discussion about race.

7. Possible Classroom Uses:

This book would be great as a read-aloud, small group assignment, class novel or individual suggestion. It ties nicely with Maniac Magee, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry or other adolescent novels dealing with this time in history, isolation, poverty, etc.

8. Appropriate Age Range

Bud, Not Buddy would be great for middle or junior high students.

9. Personal Reactions:
My son and his friends did not want to read this book. However, when I finally convinced them to start it, they loved it. I was impressed with the flawless incorporation of history and fiction that Christopher Paul Curtis seems to accomplish effortlessly. Although it seemed a little too neat in the end, middle school kids and junior high kids who are dealing with emerging ideas about race and class will connect with and be moved by Bud, Not Buddy.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes - Yes, this is why Chris Crutcher is the Man!

1. Bibliography: Crutcher, Chris. Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes. New York: First Harper Tempest, 1993.

2. Genre and Awards:

Young Adult/Many other things, I am having trouble categorizing, please read on!
ALA Best Book for YA
SLJ Best Book for YA
American Booksellers Pick of the List
California Young Reader Medalist
1995 Joan Fassler Memorial Book Award
ALA Best of the Best Books for YA
Publisher's Weekly Starred Review
1994 South Dakota YARP Best Books
Nominee 1995-1996 Iowa Teen Award
Nominee 1995-1996 SC YA Book Award
Nominee 1996 Young Reader's Choice Award
Nominee 1996-1997 ILF Rosie

3. Synopsis:

Eric Calhoune was a fat kid who didn’t have any friends. His only friend, Sarah Byrnes is disfigured from an accident in her childhood. The two of them bonded, and Eric is willing to “stay fat” to maintain her friendship. Eric begins swimming, and gains the nickname Moby. As he slims down, he worries that he might jeopardize his friendship with her. At the opening of the novel, Sarah Byrnes (she requires that everyone address her by both names to avoid the obvious link between her disfigurement and her name) is in a mental hospital. As things begin unraveling and unveiling themselves, Eric finds himself embroiled in a battle for Sarah Byrnes’s safety, the safety of his family and his own sanity. By the way, all this goes on as Eric is trying to negotiate friendships, the swim team, and his Contemporary American Thought class.

4. Characters:
Eric Calhoune is one of the most believable characters I have read in a long time. Eric is being raised by his mom, and his real father has never been in the picture. His problem is as he begins to fit in, he risks loosing his friendship with Sarah Byrnes, the toughest girl he has ever known. Eric is a wonderfully developed character who narrates this divine story.

Sarah Byrnes is a girl who was disfigured when she was three years old. She has an abusive father and is in a mental institution. The issues with Sarah Byrnes may upset many young readers, but Crutcher’s sensitive portrayal of her is incredibly endearing and will leave a mark on anyone brave enough to read this novel.

There are many important ancillary characters, like Jody, Eric’s love interest, Mark Brittan, Eric’s competition on the swim team, Dale Thornton (a super loser, yet the person who seems to know the most about Sarah Byrnes), and his friend, Ellerby, who is dealing with religion in his own way.

Also, the adults in this novel are dynamic, interesting, important characters. Mrs. Lemry, Eric’s swimming coach is an important advocate for Eric and ends up playing a pivotal role in the novel. Eric’s mother and her boyfriend, Carver, are people who seem to genuinely care about Eric and his friends, and also are extremely dynamic characters who propel the novel to its incredible conclusion.

5. Plot:
It is really complicated! I don’t want to give too much away, so I am not sure what to say—because you need to read this book! Eric was a friendless, overweight adolescent whose only friend was the disfigured Sarah Byrnes. The narration is told in flashbacks of their junior high experience. As Eric moves on, joining the swim team and making new friends, he continues to eat so he can maintain his friendship with Sarah Byrnes. There is a lot more, but I don’t want to give it away. Trust me. Read this book!

6. Needs of adolescents:
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is a tough book. It addresses unthinkable child abuse, teen sexuality, abortion, religion, friendship, isolation and identity—and that’s just the beginning. This book should be used for young men and women who are trying to find themselves in the sea of dichotomies that is high school. This book will make everyone who reads it question their own loyalty and examine their relationships.

7. Possible Classroom Uses:

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes would probably best be utilized with high school students. It would be great as a small group or individual reading. It should be handled with care because of the sensitive nature of the topics addressed, particularly the abuse, sexuality, abortion, suicide and religious topics addressed in the book. However, Crutcher masterfully weaves all of these pressing issues into a novel about loyalty, love and friendship. I think many high school students would appreciate the honesty and tenderness in this book.

8. Appropriate Age Range

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes is a book designed for 10-12 grades.

9. Personal Reactions:
This book is the reason why I got so excited that Chris Crutcher is going to be speaking at the University of Arkansas. Yes Deadline is an incredible book. But in this book, Crutcher explores such raw and tender issues with so much realism it is impossible not to cheer for Eric and for Sarah Byrnes. It is a love story of friendship and tenderness amidst pain and suffering that is unbearable to think about. Needless to say, this is the best book I have read in a long time, and yes, I have a crush on Chris Crutcher, not matter what he looks like, because anyone who can make me believe in Moby, Sarah Byrnes and their tale deserves my devotion.