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.

 

A Really Bad Day (Redeemed)

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_155402741I’d been experimenting with standards-based grading, gradually building trust with a group of seniors I’ve had for two years by “respecting their learning process.” I’d ask them to read something, negotiate a time frame, and I’d plan based on the assumption that they’d come prepared. I quit using reading quizzes for “accountability” in favor of Harkness-style discussions, and I thought it was working. 

Then came the really bad day.

Picture: The room is set for a Harkness discussion. I told my students, as always, that I’d be evaluating the quality of the group’s discussion. They’d all get the same pass/fail grade—and if they weren’t prepared, or had not completed the reading, they shouldn’t put their classmates’ grades at risk.

I knew a few would self-select out—but not all of them! Not one student finished the reading, apparently.

There went all the trust I thought we had. They’d never read anything I’d assigned, I thought. Not an essay, book, short story, not a poem. It had all been a sham and I’d been an utter fool!

Where would I go from here? Back to chapter quizzes, and kids memorizing plot points in the hallway before class, only to forget them seconds after the quiz?

Luckily, a few students came to me and said that they had read, but were afraid to join the discussion because the group was going to be too small. They might not be able to sustain a good conversation with so few others. Interestingly, most of the ones who had completed the assignment weren’t the ones with the highest grades in my class. These were the kids who usually read the books but maybe didn’t regularly complete assignments, so they didn’t always make straight A’s. They told me they liked the book, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, and they wanted to talk about it.

The Response

It was time to differentiate my instruction. 

shutterstock_342973556I created two paths for students to demonstrate their skills. One was the Harkness option for students who’d read. Student’s who weren’t comfortable with that, for whatever reason, were assigned a series of dialectical journal entries which I’d read and grade.

The students who chose the Harkness method sat down and proceeded to discuss the book with great authority, great insight. They were passionate, original. Their conversation was so smart. I wanted to join in, but that’s one of the prime rules of a Harkness—I don’t participate. I did fill pages of my notebook with their ideas.

Watching these students set me thinking. They’d come prepared and they were demonstrating all the high-level skills we’d been working on. They used the text to lend authority to their arguments, extend them, and support claims. They might not be the ones who got A’s, but whose fault is that? Did the assignments and grades I’d been giving honestly reflect my students’ abilities?

The next class period was also interesting. I let the students who discussed the book continue their conversation by creating graphic representations of their ideas. I let them talk, tape ideas on the wall, and use yarn to connect them. I gave time to the rest of the class, so they could read or complete their assignment. But they could not join the discussion until those were completed.

No one lost points or got marked late. I let them learn from each other at their own pace. The students who hadn’t read, and who were working independently, worked very hard to get into the group, which was strange because so many of them complain about “group work.”  

The Takeaways

The whole experience left me thinking about my practice. 

Trust but verify. I understand the philosophy behind standards-based grading, but the sad truth seems to be that some students aren’t ready for this level of responsibility. I still need a system that “holds them accountable” (ick).

Points aren’t accountability. Based on what I saw, students want to be part of high-quality activities that allow them to demonstrate how smart they are, points be damned. Getting back into the circle wasn’t about points. They had ideas and things to say.

The process is important. When we started our next book, there were students who had to prove that they’d read the book by submitting dialectical journals. Most of these students admitted that doing the writing, and being true to the process, had spurred their thinking and anchored their ideas in the text.

Pay attention to the outsiders. I’m ashamed to admit that I was taken aback by the abilities and intelligence of “mid-level students,” who showed me again that grades and points aren’t a good indicator of ability, understanding, creativity, or anything that matters. What I really need to do—and this brings me back to the beginning—is to stay out of the way, and give them ways to be brilliant.

So, my horrible, terrible, really bad day turned out to be . . . horrible, sure, but instructive.

RICKRick Kreinbring teaches English at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills, Michigan. His current assignments include teaching AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition. He is a member of a statewide research project through the Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative partnered with the MSU Writing in Digital Environments Program, which concentrates on improving student writing and peer feedback. Rick has presented at the National Advanced Placement Convention and the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. He is in his twenty-third year of teaching and makes his home in Huntington Woods.

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.

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.

 

The SAT Essay: Embracing My Fear

AARI Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_217407295I don’t know about you, but when I got my first look at a sample SAT essay prompt, my eyes just about bugged out of my head.

It was last year, and I was trying to wrap my head around the changes that were in store for our kids with the switch from ACT to SAT. If you’re not already familiar, take a look at the information and samples on the College Board website. The essay question on the redesigned SAT, which all Michigan juniors will be required to take this spring, asks students to first read a high-level text that presents an argument. The topic of the text, the College Board explains, will “express subtle views on complex topics.” Then, students must write an analysis of the rhetorical strategies that the author uses to express those subtle views.

At first, I wanted to argue, “But I know how to prepare the kids for the ACT!” Even if students walked into my room with zero knowledge of persuasive writing, I could coach them with enough practice, checklists, and do’s and don’ts to help them reach proficiency. We were machines when it came to preparing for the ACT essay!

But the SAT essay doesn’t assess a genre of writing; it assesses students’ reading comprehension, analysis, and writing. No matter how much I wanted to prepare students for this essay, I couldn’t give them crash-courses—in how to understand a complex text, or how to analyze an author’s purpose. I felt like I would somehow be failing my students.

The Upside of the Essay

The more I worried about it, the more I came to the realization that changed my perspective: This isn’t a bad thing. Why was I clinging to prepping students for a test? I don’t know anyone who went into education in order to teach to a test; I certainly didn’t. The redesigned SAT essay measures the very skills we’ve been teaching as we have shifted to the Common Core State Standards. I realized that I needed take heart in the fact that this new test would assess the skills I am already teaching within my regular units of study.

Still, I worried that the students and the teachers in my district wouldn’t be ready for such a change. I initially felt uncomfortable moving away from teaching as if my students were essay-writing machines, and, I realized, surely there were other teachers who felt the same way. So, I dug into the research and my own practices to determine what I could do to support them.

shutterstock_160526231I kept coming back to the portion of the essay that asks students for analysis. At first, I wondered if we could put together a toolbox of the most common ways of building an argument, or a list of a few “magic” rhetorical devices students could expect to encounter. But the more I read and explored, the more I came back to the answer that no, there would be no magic lists or silver bullets for this test. What the analysis portion essentially boils down to is: Can students understand what an author’s purpose is, and analyze the moves the author made to achieve that purpose? This isn’t a test prep strategy; it’s just what good readers and writers can do!

What made me even happier as I came to this realization is that this is exactly what we are scaffolding in our AARI reading intervention classes. In AARI, or the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, we regularly read to determine the author’s purpose, then analyze how the author supported that purpose by how he or she organized his or her evidence.

Clearly this is a great start. But it’s not enough. It needs to happen in every class at every level, with a variety of texts.

Taking the Lessons to Other Classrooms

To start supporting our teachers in this endeavor, I went back to the work of favorites like Katie Wood Ray, Kelly Gallagher, and Jeff Anderson, who advocate the use of mentor texts to “read like a writer.” In this instructional method, teachers lead students to not only read for comprehension, but to also analyze how the texts are written, so that they can essentially imitate the craft in their own writing. The result is more focused, purposeful reading, and authentic writing.

This is not a new idea, especially for many elementary teachers who have lived within reading and writing workshops for years. But it can be transformative for many secondary teachers who are still adjusting to our new standards and units.

And though there may not be any magic lists or silver bullets for this essay, this instructional method just may be the closest thing.

MKortlandt2 Megan Kortlandt 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.

An Up-All-Night Fantasy Thriller

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

Red QueenI had a friend in college whose favorite Christmas tradition was to stay up reading all night on Christmas Eve. He had accidentally created this experience for himself in middle school when he received Jurassic Park as an early gift, and he had been so absorbed that he read until dawn. He spent each year after that trying to replicate the experience, searching for the most gripping, intense book to read while waiting for Santa.

I don’t think one needs an excuse or holiday to stay up too late reading, but I appreciated his sense of ceremony. He was a fan of fantasy and if we were still in touch, I’d recommend the thrilling YA novel that I just finished, Red Queen, by Victoria Aveyard.

The Plot

Mare Barrow has hated the Silvers her entire life. As a Red, she is bound for a life of servitude, poverty, and eventual conscription into the Army to fight a war waged by the Silvers. The Silvers have all of the power and money, and hold onto it using their rare special abilities—powers that allow them to manipulate the elements in addition to the Reds.

When Mare’s best friend, Kilorn, is conscripted earlier than expected, Mare is determined to find a solution to his problem. But her attempts to solve one problem lead to an even greater one—Mare, though her blood flows Red, is discovered in a very public forum to have an ability of her own. Suddenly, she is swept into the world of the Silvers, betrothed to marry the youngest Prince, and forced to live out her days among those she hates the most. So Mare chooses the only path that she feels she can reconcile herself to—join the Red rebellion group, the Scarlet Guard, and wage a revolution from within the palace.

Why It’ll Keep You Up Past Your Bedtime

Red Queen sucked me in right from the beginning. This is a plot-driven, action-packed novel with all of the substance needed to elevate it to “must-read” status. I have a weakness for stories where the balance of power is precarious and on the brink of upheaval. The intensity of such a situation is immediately gripping, which makes Mare’s world the perfect setting for a sleepless night. Not to mention the tension among her new “family” of Silvers and “friends” in the Scarlet Guard, which constantly keeps readers guessing about where alliances really lie.  

If that’s not enough, the wavering romantic interest from prince to prince will keep your heart beating with speculation. Oh, and have I mentioned that the ending is epic? Epic! You may not be able to sleep even after you finish because you’re still reeling from the shock of how all of the moving pieces come together at the conclusion.

But don’t take this recommendation on my word alone—Red Queen was the Goodreads winner in the category of Best Book from a Debut Author, garnering 46,698 votes! And if you find yourself whipping through it in the course of an evening, fear not. The sequel, Glass Sword, is expected for release on February 9. Schedule yourself another sleepless night for Valentine’s Day or mid-winter break!

Book Details:
Reading Levels: AR 5.2, Lexile HL740L
ISBN: 9780062310637
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Harper Teen
Publication Date: February 10, 2015

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.