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.

 

Book Review: Reading Nonfiction

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

519O713jxML._SX395_BO1,204,203,200_A few months back, I wrote about how great Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s book Notice & Note was. As soon as I got wind that Beers and Probst would be releasing a nonfiction version, Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies, I quickly headed over to Amazon and pre-ordered my copy—and I have not been disappointed!

As much as I loved Notice & Note and made it an integral part of how I teach reading, I think I love Reading Nonfiction even more. As I read, I kept finding myself nodding and, in my head, yelling, “Yes! Why didn’t I think of that before?!”

The Importance of Critical Reading

One of the concepts that struck me the most, and I really couldn’t believe that I had not thought about it before, was the idea that many times, we teach nonfiction as being simply not fiction, which is much too simple a definition and one that can lead inexperienced readers down the wrong path. If we say that fiction texts are not true, then we’re also implying that nonfiction texts are true, which can be a dangerous assumption to make.  

Beers and Probst complicate this true/not true definition, but also bring it closer to helping students understand that readers of nonfiction need to be critical, informed readers and not just passive ones being taken in by a story. They define nonfiction as a “body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea, or a belief” (21).

Clearly, the key word in this definition is purports, which signals to students that what they are about to read is always going to be someone’s version of what is real, and that we cannot always take what we read at face value, a necessary skill students need to develop as they are bombarded with information on a daily basis.

The Book’s Elements

Notice & Note was broken down into six signposts, elements that the authors claim are common to the majority of YA novels, and which help to focus students’ thinking. Reading Nonfiction is set up a bit differently; it is broken down like this:

Big Questions

  • What surprised you?
  • What did the author think you already knew?
  • What changed, challenged, or confirmed what you already knew?

Signposts

  • Contrasts and Contradictions
  • Extreme or Absolute Language
  • Numbers and Stats
  • Quoted Words
  • Word Gaps

Fix-Up Strategies

  • Possible Sentences
  • KWL 2.0
  • Somebody Wanted But So
  • Syntax Surgery
  • Sketch to Stretch
  • Genre Reformulation
  • Poster
Anchor chart for the Big Question, What did the author think I already knew?

Anchor chart for the Big Question, What did the author think I already knew?

The Big Questions are the kinds of questions that experienced readers of nonfiction keep in mind as they read, and help students read closely rather than have their eyes skim words on a page. The Signposts help students read closely for features and concepts often found in nonfiction. The Fix-Up Strategies are designed to help when students’ understanding has broken down and can be used before, during, and after reading.

So far, I have begun using the Big Questions with my struggling 6th grade readers. My students are surprising me with how much they are marking and are able to talk about, because they developed this questioning stance before reading. After we tried out the Big Questions, I asked them if they thought this helped them read and understand in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise, and they insightfully indicated how reading with these questions in mind helped them focus on the article and think about it differently.

What is maybe most amazing about this book is that it’s not made just for ELA teachers. As I was reading, I could picture how these concepts could be applied to all content areas, and I wished that every teacher in my building would read this book. This just may have to be our staff’s next book study!

Screenshot 2014-09-26 at 12.44.07 PMJianna Taylor (@JiannaTaylor) is an ELA and Title 1 teacher at Orchard Lake Middle School in West Bloomfield.  She is a member of the AVID Site Team and Continuous School Improvement Team at her school, among other things.  She is also a MiELA Network Summer Institute facilitator and member of the OWP Core Leadership Team.  Jianna earned her bachelor’s degree from Oakland University and her master’s degree from the University of Michigan.  She also writes reviews of children’s books and young adult novels for the magazine School Library Connection.

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.

Mentor Texts: Reading Like Writers

Book Reviews Common Core Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_151419089Secondary teachers continue to switch from old units designed around novels, to new Common Core State Standards units focused on skills and genres. As they do so, an instructional method that can support this shift is the use of mentor texts to “read like a writer.”

When a class reads like a writer, the teacher takes a descriptive approach, rather than a prescriptive approach, to instruction. It might help to think of this as an inquiry-based lesson. Instead of a teacher saying to her students, “Your essay must contain a thesis statement that sounds like this,” she might guide her students as they read another text, asking questions like, “When in this paragraph does this writer tell us what claim he’s making? How does he do it?”

It is clear that the secondary ELA world is catching on to this instructional method. It’s deeply rooted in our Common Core State Standards. Rather than requiring just the comprehension of texts, our anchor standards require students to analyze texts for word choice, structure, or “how purpose shapes the content and style of a text” (R.6). This analytical reading goes hand-in-hand with the descriptive approach taken when classes are reading like writers.

As our state makes the switch from ACT to SAT, the focus on analysis is even more apparent. The Teacher Implementation Guide produced by the College Board includes in its recommended instructional strategies the direction to “ask students to investigate the ways authors use word choice, structure, and other techniques….” Likewise, the new SAT essay does not simply ask that students be able to write their own persuasive essays; it requires that they analyze another writer’s argument.

A Book Focused on High School

It’s clear that this inquiry-based approach to reading and writing is profoundly important to secondary teachers. This is an enormous instructional shift for many teachers, especially for those in high schools. As they tackle new units and new assessments, they’ll need support. Some of our go-to mentors like Kelly Gallagher and Jeff Anderson have been writing about this instructional method, but the vast majority of writing that’s been done around mentor texts has focused on elementary classes.

41dIMvzIynL._SX395_BO1,204,203,200_That’s why it’s so exciting to see the recent publication of Writing with Mentors, by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. So many other great mentor-text resources have left secondary teachers like myself to adapt the work for my high school students. But this book is written by two teachers with a decidedly high-school lens.

As the authors put it in their introduction, “This book was written to help you understand the potential that writing with mentors has for your students.” The book starts with the writers’ understanding of the use of mentor texts. Throughout the subsequent chapters, the book transitions to students’ understanding, use, and ownership of mentor texts.

The first two chapters offer the most foundational support for high school teachers who are making the paradigm shift, from prescriptive instruction to reading like a writer. These early chapters outline the classroom essentials needed to foster this instructional approach. The authors describe creating conditions, space, and time for reading and writing, as well as the concept of choice.

The second chapter digs into how teachers should approach the planning and internalization of this method, or as the authors call it, “Developing a Mentor Text Habit of Mind.” This chapter offers concrete suggestions for the finding and building of mentor-text collections, as well as for storage, organization, and planning. It is essential reading for secondary teachers who are just starting to get their toes wet in this kind of analytical reading and writing.

A Book for Novices and Veterans

The subsequent chapters focus on how to use mentor texts throughout the writing process, from planning to publishing. Throughout the book, the authors include plenty of resources to support teachers at all levels of understanding. Included in these resources are examples of texts that the authors have used as mentors for various genres and purposes. These texts are explained throughout the chapters and again collected in an appendix, complete with URLs and QR codes for quick access.

I’ve only had this book since its publication this fall, but with all of my highlighting, markings in the margins, and sticky notes, it’s already looking pretty well loved. It seems like every time I turn around, I’m recommending it to someone new.

That’s because whether you’re a teacher who has been using mentor texts for years, or one who is just starting to grapple with the new units and standards, this book offers valuable support for a trusted instructional approach, one that’s guaranteed to help our students grow as analytical readers and writers.

Resources

Gallagher, K. (2011). Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts. Portland: Stenhouse.

Gallagher, K. (2014). Making the Most of Mentor Texts. ASCD , 28-33.

Marchetti, A., & O’Dell, R. (2015). Writing with Mentors: How to Reach Every Writer in the Room Using Current, Engaging Mentor Texts. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Ray, K. W. (1999). Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches AARI and literacy intervention classes at Waterford Mott High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.

A Great Graphic Novel to Engage Students

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

nimonaThe world can be separated into two groups—those who read graphic novels and those who don’t. Many adults still struggle with the value of a graphic novel. They wonder: Isn’t a graphic novel just a glorified comic book? How literary can a book full of pictures be?

Those of us who read and enjoy graphic novels know the truth—a good graphic novel can provide a reader with just as much literary merit as any other book. And when it comes to engaging reluctant or challenged readers, the possibilities inherent in a strong graphic novel only continue to grow.

So how does one target the good graphic novels? Follow a book blogger who reads them, of course! I just finished a fantastic graphic novel that has been nominated and/or won numerous awards (see Book Details below), and was even on the long list for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, amongst a cohort of standard prose novels. Read on to find out what makes Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson, so wonderful!

The Plot

Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain. He has been one ever since he was kicked out of the The Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, after being betrayed by his childhood friend, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. They are now sworn enemies.

When snarky, shape-shifting Nimona shows up to become his evil sidekick, Blackheart is unenthusiastic. He does not now nor has he ever needed a sidekick. But Nimona proves to be rather useful, turning into ferocious beasts when they are faced with danger, or masquerading as an innocent child when they are working undercover. He may have to keep her around after all.

To Blackheart’s great surprise, the open book he thinks he has found in Nimona has a mysterious past, the kind of legend that may be her downfall. Will they be able to overcome these new obstacles together?

​Why It’s Worth Reading

Graphic novels can cover so much ground and come in so many different packages. It is instantly clear that one reason to read Nimona is the artwork. Beautiful, full-color illustrations accompany the story from start to finish.

But the story itself should not be overlooked. What starts off reading as an obvious hero-vs.-villain comic book, complete with fight scenes and crazy weapons, becomes a more humorous and complex tale with every page. Nimona’s attitude and hilarious dialogue set her apart as a character to remember, and the conclusion is surprisingly heart warming, despite both Blackheart’s and Nimona’s attempts to stay disconnected and distant from the other characters.

Not to be too practical here, but if fantastic images and an exciting, yet touching, story aren’t enough, there’s also the time factor involved in reading a graphic novel. Though you can spend as much time as you’d like pouring over the art as well as the text, reading a story propelled by pictures is never going to take as long as one driven strictly by text. You might be able to make it through a graphic novel in less than half the time it would take you to read a prose novel. Plus, some interesting studies show that your brain will access this kind of story in a completely different way as a result of the visual component.

If you’ve been thinking about trying out a graphic novel, grab a copy of this one. It’s a fast, exciting, even slightly moving way to dip your toes into the graphic novel pool.

​Book Details

Reading Level: AR = 3.1, Lexile = GN350L
ISBN: 9780062278234
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication Date: May 12, 2015
Awards: Tons! Long list for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Slate Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Web Comic, Harvey Award for Best Online Comics Work, Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards Nominee for Best Digital/Web Comic, Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Graphic Novels & Comics.

pic of me Bethany 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.