It’s Hard to Teach Voice in Writing. These 4 Novels Help.

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom


Teaching voice to teenagers can be a tricky business. Voice is so personal, so varying, so complex. 

To make the business even trickier, there are many powerful ways to teach the written voice–so many that it’s difficult to teach them all.

All of which explains why this task calls for examples from literature. But where to get started?

These four YA novels offer students beautiful expressions of voice. They also happen to be excellent books, which students may find that they are excited to read once they’ve had a taste of the story and the style.

1. Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green

You probably heard about this one unless you’re strongly opposed to YA literature or you’ve been living under a rock. It’s the latest from the author of The Fault in Our Stars, John Green, who is known for his trademark wit and sincerity. Turtles All the Way Down follows Aza, a teenager with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which manifests in increasingly suffocating thought-spirals from which she cannot break away.  

Green’s wit is back in spades, and the lessons in voice come from his successful descriptions of Aza’s seemingly indescribable feelings: “Felt myself slipping, but even that’s a metaphor. Descending, but that is too. Can’t describe the feeling itself except to say that I’m not me. Forged in the smithy of someone else’s soul. Please just let me out. Whoever is authoring me, let me up out of this.”

This novel offers a case study in how to express the things that seem to only make sense in one’s own mind. It’s a voice lesson for our students that is worth the price of this book.

2. Dear Martin, by Nic Stone

We’re currently riding a wave of excellent books dealing with race and police brutality (All American Boys, by Reynolds & Kiely, The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, among others). Dear Martin separates itself from the others by offering heartfelt, introspective thoughts from its main character, Justyce, who is arrested inappropriately while trying to help a friend, and faces worse interactions with police and the media later in the novel. 

Justyce writes letters to Martin Luther King, Jr., in an attempt to process his feelings, in King’s nonviolent manner: “I know I’m a good dude, Martin. I thought if I made sure to be an upstanding member of society, I’d be exempt from the stuff THOSE black guys deal with, you know? Really hard to swallow that I was wrong.”

With so many teens realizing, like Justyce, that their expectations will not always be met by adults, society, or so-called friends, Justyce’s voice serves as a textbook example of internal dialogue.

american street3. American Street, by Ibi Zoboi

A National Book Award finalist, American Street shares the story of Fabiola Toussaint, an immigrant to Detroit from Haiti. Her voice perfectly expresses the feeling of being pulled between two cultures, two families, while struggling to belong to both worlds. Fabiola says, “My two paths meet at this corner, and it seems like I have to choose one. One street represents a future, the other leads to a different kind of life.” 

Ibi Zoboi, the novel’s author, also beautifully mixes Fabiola’s beliefs with moments of magical realism, allowing for the expression of spiritualism in a very poetic way. As so many of our students may be trying to express aspects of their cultural background in writing, the character of Fabiola provides a lovely yet accessible example.  

4. Rani Patel in Full Effect, by Sonia Patel

A 2016 Morris Award finalist, Rani Patel in Full Effect introduces us to Rani, an Indian-American teen poet and rapper living in Moloka’i, an island in Hawaii. Sonia Patel does a masterful job characterizing Rani, imbuing in her a strong connection to her heritage but also to Hawaiian and ’90s hip-hop culture.

We see this in every phrase that she utters, including one memorable, imagined encounter with the rapper LL Cool J: “If I ever met him, I’d probably give him a chin-up and say, ‘S’up LL.’ Naw. Let’s be real. I’d give him a big bear hug and say, ‘Thank you. Thank you for Mama Said Knock You Out. It’s cheaper than therapy, man.'”  The inclusion of Rani’s poems and lyrics only add to the strength of her voice, which tops my list of the most dynamic voices in YA literature.

These are just a few examples of outstanding YA novels that offer powerful examples of voice. I’d love to know if any readers have additional favorites. Email, tweet or share!

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.  Bethany is strangely fond of zombies in almost all forms of media, a fact which tends to surprise the people that know her.  She has two children below age five, and is grateful at the end of any day that involves the use of fewer than four baby wipes.

Want to Do a Staff Book Study? Here Are 4 Books to Get You Started.

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom


I sometimes like to think that I am a fully developed, 100-percent-complete human.
I know who I am and what I stand for, both personally and professionally. This means my professional identity is fully formed and solid as a rock, right?  

The truth is that our identities, especially as professional educators, are always shifting. We’re confronted with new theories, technologies, and trends. And as I’ve found with a fellow group of teachers, who together are part of a professional book study, the drive for constant learning is a component of every great teacher’s professional identity.

Over these few years, we have read some thought-provoking, conversation-starting books. Here are four titles that can inspire a professional book study in your school.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character 

Our first book study, and probably my favorite to this day, How Children Succeed, got our group talking about non-cognitive skills. These are skills like grit and conscientiousness, and the kinds that impact classroom learning and the overall success of our students.

The book’s findings were eye-opening–yet also confirmed some mutual understanding that we felt we had gained after years of teaching teenagers. Author Paul Tough’s stories about students’ overcoming adversity with these traits were also hopeful and inspiring, feelings that are occasionally lacking in educational texts. And for me, reading this book with a 5-month-old baby at home not only changed my outlook on teaching, but on parenting too. 

How Children Succeed will remind you just how much our students go through as people, and of how resilient they can be.

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got that Way

Amanda Ripley, in The Smartest Kids, conducts extensive interviews with three American high school students who study for one year in some of the world’s highest-performing countries: Finland, South Korea, and Poland. For our book study, Ripley’s research opened up passionate conversations about teacher preparation in the United States, and how additional opportunities, like sports and clubs, can be double-edged swords in our schools. As a bonus, this book works as a student text too, and has been adopted by some of our teacher participants into their classroom curriculum in courses like AP Language and IB Theory of Knowledge.  

The takeaway: The Smartest Kids in the World will help demystify some of the chatter about education in other countries, and will reinforce the extent to which a system of education is influenced by culture.

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

Make It Stick focuses on the phases of learning and memory-making, and the necessary steps and strategies to move information from short-term to long-term memory, and then to keep it there. In our book study, a particularly hearty, and still ongoing, conversation formed around the “illusion of mastery” concept. We touched on the importance of revisiting key concepts, and how understanding can be measured in a standards-based grading model. Of the books we have read so far, this one had the most obvious and direct applications for classrooms, and has revolutionized the way one of my colleagues teaches.

The takeaway: Make It Stick will send you straight to your desk to start revamping lesson plans in order to revisit content.

The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults

The Teenage Brain brought us heavily into the world of brain science. The book looks at how the teenage brain responds to stress, intoxicants, digital devices, and mental illness, subjects that have given our cohort conversational fodder that will last for years. I’m also finding strange comfort in knowing well in advance some of the strategies that I can apply when my own children become teenagers, the thought of which already keeps me awake at night even though neither of them is school-aged.

The takeaway: The Teenage Brain was a great reminder that while it is easy to think of our teens as mini-adults, they have not developed to the point that we can expect to see consistent adult behavior.

Blogger’s Note: I may never have gotten around to reading these books if they hadn’t been recommended by my colleagues and friends, Brian Langley & Lauren Nizol, and if I didn’t work, read, and discuss with such a wonderful & curious group of teachers. Thanks to all!

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.  Bethany is strangely fond of zombies in almost all forms of media, a fact which tends to surprise the people that know her.  She has two children below age five, and is grateful at the end of any day that involves the use of fewer than four baby wipes.

Provocative Nonfiction about the Birth of Our Nation

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

I used to think that nonfiction was not my thing. But I’m a librarian, so I have to make it my thing in order to best serve my students and staff. Still, I often felt like I was twisting my own arm while reading nonfiction.

But then, as I often tell reluctant readers, after a few missteps with the wrong books at the wrong times, I started to find exciting, narrative nonfiction that was as captivating and readable as my favorite fiction pieces.

I was reading unbelievable stories about mutinies, revolutions, sports stars, and even corpses, and they were true! Not only did I have a great tale to tempt my students with, but every event actually happened.

People are enchanted by dynamic, true stories even more so than by fiction because they engage our child-like curiosity about the many events and topics that have previously eluded us. Yes, we have been in school (or out of school) for years, but we haven’t yet learned it all. I recently finished reading In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives, by Kenneth C. Davis (a 2017 YALSA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction finalist) and found myself alight with all that I had learned and wanted to share with others.

The Story

In the Shadow of Liberty tells the true stories of five African-Americans who were enslaved by four of the country’s founding fathers. We learn about Billy Lee, Washington’s right-hand man on and off the battlefield; and Ona Judge, Washington’s house maid who escaped and was fervently hunted by both George and Martha Washington.

We hear about Paul Jennings, who grew up playing with Dolly Madison’s oldest son, though Jennings was already enslaved to the family. And we learn of Isaac Granger, who was enslaved to Thomas Jefferson after Jefferson wrote a law ending slave trading to America.

Finally, we read about Alfred Jackson. Jackson lived his entire life at Andrew Jackson’s “Hermitage,” watching as Andrew ordered enslaved workers to be whipped savagely–but then doled out vast sums to provide defense lawyers for enslaved men on trial for involvement in a slave rebellion.

Kenneth C. Davis writes about the full scope of the labor that these five people were expected to perform. He describes the way that they were treated, and most especially, the roles that they played in the major accomplishments of their owners.

Why It’s Worth Reading

We spend a great deal of time learning about the Founding Fathers and the way that they helped develop the country and institute democracy. But like all famous figures, these men did not work alone.

There were many people, including hundreds of enslaved people, who fought in the wars, managed the meetings, and built famous structures, like the White House. Billy Lee went everywhere with George Washington, fought alongside him, and carried his most precious items and documents. He is one of the most famous enslaved people in U.S. history, yet no one knows when he died or where he is buried. He never even knew his own birthday.

The thing that stands out to me most about this book is a great historical paradox. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson were all deeply involved in battles related to rights and liberties, but each of them failed to consider, at least initially, that enslaving others was a direct contradiction to their fights for freedom.

This book will make you think about American history in a completely new way. It’s a fabulous text to work into a history or sociology class, and I can see it as an engaging title for students who are interested in current civil rights issues. In the Shadow of Liberty could turn anyone into a nonfiction convert.

Book Details:
Title: In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives
Author: Kenneth C. Davis
Reading Level: AR = 8.2
ISBN: 9781627793117
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Publication Date: September 20, 2016
Format: Hardcover
Awards/Accolades: 2017 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults finalist and at least 3 starred reviews

Bethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

Star-Crossed Lovers for a Modern World

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

sun is also a starStar-crossed lovers . . .  by the time that nearly every high school student reads Romeo and Juliet, the battle between love and tremendous odds has become one of the most common motifs in all forms of the media they consume.

Songwriters pen lyrics about trying to make love work–in opposition to fierce outside forces. Countless movies and television shows depict relationships blossoming, and sometimes subsequently wilting, as friends, family, and even pets put forth major resistance.

But the world of literature is the big kahuna for complicated romance, and YA literature has a corner on the market. It is only fitting that young people make the best star-crossed lovers (even Shakespeare thought so), since their relationships are under more scrutiny and supervision than those of most adults.

I’ve read some truly excellent YA novels that have come out in the last few years, and are about conflicted or ill-fated romance (Eleanor & Park, Like No OtherDaughter of Smoke & Bone). But The Sun is Also a Star tops my list. (I’m not alone; see Awards & Accolades in the Book Details section of this post).

The Plot

The day that Natasha and Daniel meet is one that is already slated to change both of their lives.

Daniel is headed to his Yale admission interview. If it goes well, he’s headed to Connecticut to become a doctor, just like his parents have always wanted.

Natasha’s family is being deported to Jamaica–tonight. She’s hoping to meet with a lawyer to figure out a way to stay. They are in the middle of major moments in their lives, but when they meet, they both have entirely new reasons for staying in New York. Do they dare disturb the universe and its plan already in progress? Or is being together part of the plan?

Why It’s Worth Reading

There are a lot of sappy teen romances out there. This isn’t one of them.

The Sun is Also a Star is a clever, sincere, hilarious–yet poignant–story about two young people who don’t have time or space in their lives for each other. But they just cannot help themselves. They come from completely different cultures and have completely different life philosophies. No one would ever put them together, and some are actively trying to keep them apart. But the universe has other plans.

As an adult, I appreciated that while this is a teen romance of the sweeping-off-the-feet variety, this relationship is not one dimensional. Their lives continue when they are apart. Their problems do not simply disappear because they have fallen in love. This is love in the real world: consuming, but complex.

If the story itself were not enough, author Nicola Yoon also includes chapters that depart from the narrative, and which function as informative asides. This adds tremendous depth and oft-needed background to the plot.

One of these asides, for example, might focus on a minor character with whom Natasha interacts for only a few minutes, giving history and explanations about how their momentary interaction has a lasting impact. Later in the story, after the reader learns that Daniel’s South Korean parents own a black-hair-care store, one of these chapters briefly but compellingly explains the fascinating history of the South Korean hair trade, which led to nearly all black-hair-care shops in New York being owned by immigrants from South Korea.

There is a reason that this novel made seemingly all of the “best of” lists in 2016, and was a finalist in multiple award categories, including the John Steptoe New Talent Award (a sub-category of the Coretta Scott King Award) and National Book Award. As YA star-crossed lover novels go, it’s hard to beat.

Book Details:
Title: 
The Sun is Also a Star
Author: Nicola Yoon
Reading Level: AR = 4.7, Lexile = HL650L
ISBN: 9780553496680
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: November 1, 2016
Format: Hardcover
Awards/Accolades: 2017 Printz Award finalist, 2017 John Steptoe Award for New Talent, 2016 National Book Award finalist and at least five starred reviews!

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

Excellent Debut Fiction about Detroit

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

american streetWhat’s more fun than reading a book set in a place with which you are intimately familiar? To read about restaurants, buildings, and even street names that you know personally is a small thrill.

Reading a book set in Detroit, my closest “big city,” adds an additional layer of excitement. I’ve lived within half an hour of Detroit for my entire life. I attended graduate school there, and I visit frequently. I have a certain amount of suburban pride for all that the city has to offer–despite never having lived within city limits.

I recently read a fantastic debut YA novel called American Street, which is about a Haitian immigrant who settles in Detroit. It offered recognizable street names and locations that connect me to the city, while showcasing the realities of a daily life that I have never actually experienced.

The Plot

Fabiola and her mother have been planning to leave Haiti for years. But when they finally make the trip, her mother is detained at the U.S. border.

Fabiola is forced to navigate her way to Detroit, and to live with family she has only known over the phone. Her aunt is mysterious and often ill, disappearing into her room for days at a time. Her cousins are legendary. Known around their school as the 3Bs, they strike fear into the hearts of anyone who crosses them.

Fabiola feels most at home with this side of her family, but she also fails to understand the complicated world in which they live. She wants to stay in the U.S. But she also misses Haiti and her mother, about whom no one else seems to share her concern. She’s living at the crossroads of Joy Road and American Street, and she has reached the crossroads in her life as well. Where does she belong?

Why It’s Worth Reading

Fabiola is a sympathetic character, and it’s so easy to relate to her consistent inner conflict. She wants to connect with her family and make new friends, but she can’t help but feel like she’s on the outside, looking in. As a reader, one’s own circumstances may be different, but everyone certainly knows the feeling of being pulled between two strong forces.

Plus, Fabiola opens up the city of Detroit in an entirely new way. She sees it through the eyes of strangers, navigating places familiar to me, but foreign to her. Her perspective of the city is fascinating. While she recognizes that it has many flaws, she draws direct comparisons to her hometown of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, an area which has also seen some struggles and setbacks. Author Ibi Zoboi, through Fabiola, is able to assess the community very matter-of-factly, without melodramatic judgment or the overwhelming historical perspective (a fall from greatness, or rejuvenation after that fall) that is often represented in books about Detroit.

And I have not even mentioned the incredible writing! The language is poetic. Hints of magical realism in the plot evoke a mystical mood. And tons of beautiful metaphors, most particularly with the street intersection of American and Joy, make it clear that this book is something special.

Book Details:
Title: American Street
Author: Ibi Zoboi
ISBN: 9780062473042
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: February 14, 2017
Awards and Accolades: five starred reviews before release!
Source: Advanced Reader’s Copy (full disclosure: I received a free galley in exchange for my honest opinion)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

International Settings Fill Contextual Pools

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

city of saints and thievesI’ve had frequent conversations about contextual pools lately. I hear more and more of my colleagues speaking about the challenges that arise in teaching their subject matter when the contextual pool of the students is so limited. That is, when our students have very little background knowledge on a subject, it is very difficult for them to learn new material or to garner any interest in doing so.

I found myself wondering about my own contextual pool and quickly realized that, like so many aspects of my identity, it is largely constructed and filled by my reading. When I consider my knowledge of a concept with which I have no personal experience, I recognize that my understanding or appreciation was gleaned from a book–and often a novel.

But in a novel, when all aspects of the settings, culture, and people are new, I can’t help but feel that I’m gaining a sliver of awareness about that world. My contextual pool is expanding.

I recently read City of Saints & Thieves, by Natalie C. Anderson, a YA suspense novel set in Africa that offered exactly this experience.

The Plot

Tina’s been plotting her revenge for the last four years. Her mother was murdered and Tina knows exactly who committed the crime.

She joins the Goondas, a gang in her town of Sangui City, Kenya, and with their help, she vows that she will take the murderer’s money, then his power, and finally, his life. On the night that she sneaks into his house to enact her plan, everything goes wrong and Tina finds herself caught by Michael, the killer’s son who swears that his father is innocent. He convinces Tina to give him a few days to figure out the truth behind the murder and, in doing so, opens a door to a past full of secrets, lies, and a family history that she never knew existed.

Why It’s Worth Reading

Some really excellent books set in African have been written in the last few years. Still, American publishers tend to publish works set in the United States. And if we branch out to other countries, it is much more common to find European settings than those on any other continent.

It’s fantastic to leave the familiar settings behind and explore a completely new part of the world with these characters. Plus, this book was an absolute page-turner! I was totally gripped by the mystery behind Tina’s family, her mother’s initial move from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Kenya, and her complicated relationship with the wealthy and powerful Greyhill family.

Anderson does an incredible job of connecting the setting (particularly the DRC) to the story, and interweaving culture and history with the characters, as they journey to unearth the truth. My contextual pool steadily filled as I read about politics and corruption in countries with ever-changing leadership, as well as the daily events of communities engulfed in war. Reading about such events adds one more layer of value to this text–I found myself awash in gratitude that I live in a place that, despite its faults, is relatively safe, secure, and prosperous. New knowledge, an exciting plot, and feelings of gratitude combine in one book that is truly worth your time.

Book Details:
ISBN: 9780399547584
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: January 24, 2017
Awards/Accolades: 4 starred reviews only three days after its release
Source:  Advanced Reader’s Copy (Full disclosure: I received a free e-galley in exchange for my honest opinion.)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

‘Tis the Season for a Fantasy Adventure

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

crowns-gameSomething about winter calls for a good, strong fantasy story. The cold, blustery weather makes me want to curl up and disappear into an epic tale full of adventure and magic. There’s no shortage of such stories available, but if your favorite reader has consumed all of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings iterations available, they will be itching for something new and exciting this year.

Look no further than The Crown’s Game, by Evelyn Skye, an alternate history set in enchanting Imperial Russia, with all of the magic, adventure, and romance for which fantasy buffs will clamor. (Bonus: The cover is gorgeous! We know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but most kids admit that they do anyway.)

The Plot

Vika’s father has been training her to manipulate weather and animals since she was a child. He wants her to become the Imperial Enchantor, the powerful magician who protects the Tsar and helps him defend Russia against enemies. It is the only thing she has ever wanted.

But Vika doesn’t know about Nikolai, the talented orphan adopted by a wealthy family that has helped him hone his abilities to charm machines and conjure fantasies from his dreams. They intend to make him Imperial Enchantor and solidify their place in Russia’s high society.

Neither Vika nor Nikolai know about the other, and neither of them know about the Crown’s Game — the Tsar’s magical battle that will force them to demonstrate their skills. The victor becomes the Imperial Enchantor and part of the Tsar’s Guard. The loser suffers defeat and dies.

Why It’s Worth Reading

We all have times when life gets busy or exhausting. Sometimes we need a break.

Reading this kind of fantasy fiction, set in an exotic location and full of activities that could never take place in real life, is like stepping out of reality for a few moments a day and taking a mental vacation. I’ve never had the privilege of traveling to Russia, but I felt like I was visiting the real locations depicted in the book — the colorful buildings of Nevsky Prospect and the regal Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The Crown’s Game makes Russia intriguing and exciting, and may even spark some natural inquiry from students about where this book departs from history and becomes fiction.

9361589Additionally, this book reminded me of a Russian YA version of The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, which is a favorite of mine. Who doesn’t love a story in which the high-stakes battle pits soul-connected contestants against each other? I never stopped hoping that they would somehow manage to find a magical loophole so that they could both survive and go forward together. If you know teens who liked The Night Circus, encourage them to read this title, or start with The Crown’s Game and use it as a bridge to stretch their interest from YA into literary fiction.

Evelyn Skye is a debut author, but The Crown’s Game is the first book in a planned series (The Crown’s Fate is expected to release in May), and I have a feeling that it is going to be quite popular. Jump on the bandwagon before everyone else is doing it!

Book Details

Reading Level: AR = 5.9, Lexile = HL800L

ISBN: 9780062422583
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Balzer & Bray
Publication Date: May 17, 2016

Awards & Accolades: Starred review from Kirkus Reviews

Bethany Bratney

Bethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

A Book to Spark a Conversation

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

all-american-boysI recently read a knock-out YA novel. It happens to be one of the choices for the Global Read Aloud, and it sent me into a recommending and discussing orbit through both my school and personal life.

With the media flooded with police shootings, attacks on officers, and Black Lives Matter events nationwide, All-American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, offers parents, teachers, and teens a perfect opportunity to open the door to a difficult but hopefully fruitful conversation.

The Plot

Rashad and Quinn go to the same school. They know some of the same people, but they’re not really friends. They are both headed to the same Friday night party when everything changes.

Quinn sees Rashad lying on the ground outside a convenience store. He’s been accused of theft and beaten severely–by a police officer, who is a close friend of Quinn’s family.

Quinn hopes that the whole event will blow over and that he’ll be able to erase the horrible image of a beaten and bloody Rashad from his mind. But as the week goes on, the community starts to divide and a movement starts to build–#RashadIsAbsentAgainToday. Now Quinn has to make a big decision. Which side is he on?

Why It’s Worth Reading

Adults who spends time with teenagers find themselves needing to have difficult conversations about the world around us. The interactions among high school students raise plenty of questions, not to mention the frequently unsettling events of the world at large.

As a worry-worst parent of two boys under four, the possibility of these complicated queries already keeps me up at night. (Is “Dad wanted to talk to you about that” an acceptable response?) As a teacher, I struggle to find the right balance between acknowledging concerns and encouraging students to seek understanding for themselves.

Enter a well-written, thought-provoking book like All-American Boys. Such a book puts the topic into play, eliminating the onus for an awkward introduction, and allowing all who partake to feel engaged in the global conversation.

This book moved me. It helped me clarify some feelings and ideas that, even as an adult, were difficult for me to summarize and express. It reminded me that good books have power–power to start a conversation, power to inspire change, power to foster empathy. I may soon start to annoy people because I won’t stop talking about this book, but this is a conversation that is worth starting.

Book Details:
Reading Level: AR = 4.9, Lexile = HL770L
ISBN: 9781481463331
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Atheneum
Publication Date: September 29, 2015
Awards/Accolades: 5 starred reviews & Jason Reynolds won the Coretta Scott King Author award in January, shortly after this book was published.

Bethany Bratney

Bethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

A YA Novel Takes On Mental Health

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

highly-illogical-behaviorYoung adult (YA) literature often gets a bad rap. As a high school librarian, I hear the worst of the stereotypes often. One of the most common is that YA literature is too “dark” or “heavy” or “moody.” I find this perspective perplexing.

“Dark” murder mysteries and spy thrillers dominate adult best-seller lists. The independent novels that seem to thrive and become blockbuster films are often “heavy” (e.g., Roomby Emma Donoghue; Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline; and Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes). Many assume that teenagers want to read about serious, unappealing life issues like death, addiction, and mental health concerns because teenagers are “moody.” They don’t imagine that teenagers would search for literature featuring characters their age, dealing with legitimate life events in a realistic and not-always-happy way.

Over the summer, I read John Corey Whaley’s latest book, Highly Illogical Behavior, and found what might be the perfect book about a serious issue for both teenagers and the people who love them.

The Plot

High school senior Lisa desperately wants to get into a top psychology program and leave her former life in the past. But she is stumped by her entrance essay, which requires her to write about a “personal experience with mental health.”

Then she remembers Solomon, the boy from eighth grade who had a panic attack, jumped in a fountain on campus, and never came back to school. He’s the boy that she believes no longer leaves his house–ever. If she can find him, and “fix” him, she can write the perfect entrance essay, complete with a neat and tidy solution. But getting to know Solomon, and letting him into her life, changes them both in ways that neither could ever have predicted, which makes it pretty hard for Lisa to come clean about why she befriended him in the first place. Can their newfound friendship survive if it is based on a lie?

Why It’s Worth Reading

There is most definitely some hard-hitting reality in this book. Agoraphobia is not a frequently discussed mental health issue, especially as it pertains to teenagers. Lisa’s relationships with Solomon and her boyfriend, Clark, are incredibly complex and not always pretty.

But John Corey Whaley’s characteristic writing style is also filled with humor, sarcasm, and enough levity to make this book seem like less of a downer than some of its companions. I found myself chuckling at Solomon and Clark’s conversations, or at nearly everything that Solomon’s dad utters. It’s a “serious issue” book that teens can enjoy and adults can embrace.

And while the story was predictable at a few points, I found myself compelled to read it–while I was brushing my teeth every night, for example, because I just couldn’t wait two more minutes to get started. I think it’s because Whaley writes supremely believable, realistic, honest characters. They’re characters that remind you of people you know in real life. He makes you care about them and what’s going to happen to them, even if you think you probably already know where they are headed.

That’s what made this book appealing and kept me reading as I drooled toothpaste down my shirt. Grab a copy and spend a couple of minutes reading Highly Illogical Behavior while you brush your teeth. I guarantee you won’t want to stop.

Book Details

Reading Level: Lexile = HL700L
ISBN: 9780525428183
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Dial Books
Publication Date: May 10,2016
Awards/Accolades: Four starred reviews in four months. Watch this one during award season–Whaley has already won a Printz, a Moris, and been a National Book Award finalist.
Source: Penguin First To Read (I received a free e-galley in exchange for my honest opinion.)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 School Librarian of the Year Award. She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group. She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education. She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

 

Historical Fiction—Hot off the Press

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

51UN6ZK2TYL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_-1I love historical fiction. Strangely, the reason I seem to love it most is that I find it humbling in two ways.

First, the characters of historical fiction are almost always experiencing horrendous events or struggling against impossible odds that I have never had to face. Second, though I consider myself to be reasonably well versed in U.S. and world history, historical fiction routinely smacks me in the face with some historical event, time period, or consequence that I somehow completely missed. How, before I read Orphan Traindid I never know about the organized movement of thousands of young children into middle America during the Great Depression?

And how was I naively unaware of the largest maritime disaster in history before I read Ruta Sepetys’ new novel, Salt to the Sea?

The Plot

This brand-new piece of historical fiction follows four narrators during World War II: three teenage Prussian (now the area containing countries like Latvia and Lithuania) refugees and one young German sailor. Each carries a troubling secret that he or she has never told anyone. The three refugees meet on the road, each coming from a very different background and set of circumstances. They are all headed for the Baltic Sea, hoping to escape an encroaching Russian army by boarding a German ship headed toward relative safety. Unfortunately, it seems that safety does not always come as advertised.

Why It’s Worth Reading

There is so much to this book and its characters that make it fascinating and exciting. But it is also a well-researched fictional account of what may have occurred leading up to and during the worst maritime disaster in history. We’re talking about nearly six times as many deaths as the Titanic, and yet I had never before heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff or its epic demise.

I initially picked up this book because I am a huge fan of the author, Michigan native Ruta Sepetys, and her works Between Shades of Grey and Out of the Easy. This book did not disappoint. I was immediately captured by the fascinating and mysterious cast of characters: a talented art restorationist mixed up in the Nazi art-thievery plot; a nurse-in-training who is compelled to step in as local doctor wherever she goes; a naive and self-important German boy, bound and determined to serve the Reich in any way that will garner praise. How can one not be drawn in by these varied tales that come together so seamlessly?

The fast, short chapters, which each character tells in succession, added a sense of suspense and action that really kept me turning pages as well. I regularly hear from history teachers that they are always on the lookout for World War II novels that aren’t necessarily focused on the Holocaust, and this one is sure to be a hit, particularly because of its high-interest content but relatively low reading level. It’s a great classroom-connection novel and a fantastic find for historical fiction lovers everywhere!

Book Details

Reading Levels: AR = unknown , Lexile = HL560L
ISBN: 9780399160301
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication Date: February 2, 2016
Awards: None yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it received some eventually. It’s only been out for 3 weeks and it’s already got 4 starred reviews!
Source: NetGalley (I received an advanced copy in exchange for my honest review.)

pic of meBethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and is the recent recipient of the 2015 School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.