Tag Archives: Book Review

Empathy & Compassion: YA Titles to Build Bridges

The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that there are 917 Hate Groups in the United States. That means there are close to one thousand hate groups in the United States. Today in 2017.


Photo from splcenter.org

The events that happened in Charlottesville, Virginia this past week are disturbing and upsetting.  At the same time, as a teacher, I look to current events to guide my teaching in middle school.  As a teacher and a human being I promote empathy, compassion, and understanding among ALL people both in and outside of my classroom.

For summer reading I requested students choose any book they wanted to read that had a theme of social justice. Social justice and Reconstruction are where we begin in September. Students will participate in many conversations about social justice and injustice based on events that took place this summer as well as in the books they read while on break. We will continue to address social justice throughout our reading and writing units over the course of the school year because teaching students to be critical thinkers and compassionate people is just as much as a learning target and goal as any Common Core Learning Standard.

In response to Frank Bruni’s op-ed piece in the New York TimesI Am a White Man. Hear Me Out” (8/13/2017), Colette M Bennett’s blog Used Books in Class writes,

Reading provides the reader the experience of seeing through another’s eyes. That is the definition of empathy. There is research that supports the link between the reading of stories and empathy.  Therefore, my response as an educator to Bruni is that the bridges he seeks can be bridges that are built by reading stories.

Reading is at the center of my middle school English classroom and reading and sharing books is key. In response to building bridges, conducting conversations about current events, and promoting tolerance, here are four YA titles worth reading.


Midnight Without a Moon by Linda Williams Jackson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) takes place in Mississippi in 1955 in a town next to where Emmitt Till was murdered. The protagonist, 13 year old Rose Lee Carter, is living with her grandmother, working in the cotton fields and dreaming of a better life. The writing is powerful and gets into the heart and mind of a young African American girl struggling between what could be and the violence of what is. This book can be used parallel to primary sources about Emmitt Till, Jim Crow South, and Brown vs. Board of Ed.
Alan Gratz’s Refugee (Scholastic, 2017) tells the story of three different young people who escape their home country for a better life and for safety. One story is of Josef, a young boy living in Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Isabel is a Cuban girl in 1994 hoping to safely make it to America and Mahmoud is a Syrian Boy in 2015 looking to escape with his family after the ongoing violence and destruction in his homeland. The three young people are connected in the end but the journey they embark on is harrowing. 9780545880831_mres


The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas (Balzer & Bray, 2017) is powerful and poignant. After reading Jason Reynold and Brendan Kiley’s All American Boys (Scholastic, 2015), I did not think there would be another book as honest, raw, and gripping for young adults about police violence and brutality. Angie Thomas exceeds my expectations. The book gets at the heart of matter and puts down on paper the difficult questions many are asking about race, violence, and humanity. f043712f-4655-4c8a-b60f-fca1e4c6ca9f41mrnaqoygl-_sy344_bo1204203200_



American War: A Novel by Omar El Akkad (Knopf, 2017) is a post apocalyptic story about a divided United States after the Second Civil War breaks out in 2074 and leaves America fractured. The protagonists is young Sarat Chestnut, a tomboy who comes of age during this frightening war torn time. There are so many parallels to what is happening in our world today that will leave the reader with disturbing thoughts about the direction we are heading.

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13 Reasons to Watch 13 Reasons Why


Jay Asher’s young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why was published in 2011 and recently produced into a thirteen part series on Netflix. The series has been getting a tremendous amount of attention and controversy for the explicit scenes and issues raised throughout the series.

This series is a must see for teens, parents, and educators because we cannot look away from the issues presented throughout the show. There are some aspects of the show that were limited and stereotypical, but brings to the forefront suicide, rape, sexual assault, underage drinking and drug use. Hopefully, this series can be a catalyst and conversation starter for uncomfortable topics because as the protagonist Clay Jenson remarks, “It has to get better. The way we treat each other and look out for each other. It has to get better some how.”


So here are 13 reasons why people should watch the show:

  1. Books & Movies are Windows, Mirrors, and DoorsLiterature, as Grace Lin describes in her TED Talk Mirrors and Windows of Your Child’s Bookshelf (2016), “can show you the world and also show you a reflection of yourself.” We want students to connect with books in a way that they see the potential and possibility for making the world a better place. Books not only are reflections of ourselves as Lin points out, but should also allow readers to see things from other points of view, to build empathize, question injustice, and create new opportunities that depict strength, adversity, and the responsibility to speak out against wrongdoing. Thus, our mission as teachers is to ban boring and use present tools to engage students, raise rigor, and help young people negotiate this world of text in all its diverse forms.
  2. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined as reported by the Jason Foundation, a nonprofit organization for the awareness and prevention of youth suicide. 
  3. One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime as reported by RAINN. Violence against women is everyone’s issue and people need to be taught at a young age. As mentioned in the Asher’s text, “Here’s a tip. If you touch a girl, even as joke, and she pushes you off, leave… her… alone. Don’t touch her. Anywhere! Just stop. Your touch does nothing but sicken her.”
  4. You are not alone. As much as the character Hannah Baker thought she was alone and as much as all the other characters felt they couldn’t trust the adults or each other to tell someone how they felt, I am going to take a quote from Jennifer Niven’s Holding Up the Universe (2016) to elaborate here: “Dear friend, You are not a freak. You are wanted. You are necessary. You are the only you there is. Don’t be afraid to leave the castle. It’s a great big world out there. Love, a fellow reader”
  5. There are consequences to our actions. Each character makes a decision that impacts  another person in mostly negative ways. Poor choices are made and more than one person gets hurt because of underage drinking, drug use, and lying.
  6. Start a Kindness Movement. In the book it states, “No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push it just the same.” In the first episode of the show it is referred to as “the butterfly effect,” the impact a person has on another and the bullying and meanness that is typical of any teen book or series can be reversed if we start a kindness movement and decide to be genuinely nice to one another.
  7. Cyberbullying and Public Shaming Have to Stop. So, if a guy sleeps around with many women he is perceived as cool, but if a girl acts on her sexual impulses she is seen, labelled, and ostracized as a “Slut.” Rumors, lies, and social media turn Hannah into an object and thing that both men and women took advantage to leverage their own popularity or lie to protect their identity. We can combat cyberbullying and public shaming with empathy and compassion.
  8. Are we too sports obsessed? In the last episode of the 13 Reasons Why series, there is a scene when one of the girls is being deposed and she talks about the popularity of the jocks in the school, how they are able to get away with everything. She describes both the students and teachers being fans who celebrate the jocks even when they are bullies and rapists who think they are above the law. There is more the high school than sports. But sports shouldn’t be the driving force of school or success in school.
  9.  Building Empathy is as important as building literacy skills. Compassion and caring are learned behaviors. Schools and communities can work together to help promote caring among one another and treat others the way we want to be treated.
  10. Bystanders vs. Upstanders. Encourage people to speak up and speak out when injustice is present. Even if it means going against the norm, people to speak up and call out bullies and injustice should be celebrated and not feel alienated to do so.
  11. The gun control debate. Three characters have access to guns in the text and one character’s interaction with the gun has critical consequences. These scenes in the text raise critical conversations about access to guns and the safety of others.
  12. Underage drinking and drug use doesn’t look cool. The high school parties portrayed in the text showed underage drinking and drug use among teens that lead to negative consequences for all. Drugs alter one’s state and influence one’s perception. As a result of drug and alcohol use in the text, one person is killed in an accident, two young woman are raped, and peer pressure is exacerbated.
  13. Professionals can help. Although the book portrays parents, teachers, and counselors in a negative light. There are professionals that can help, who care, and who want to help young people who might be feeling depressed, sad, alone, and suicidal. You are not alone. Speak up and seek help if you or you know someone who shows signs of depression or suicidal thoughts.

What are your reasons why or why not watch 13 Reasons Why? Leave your comments below.

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Talking Race & Social Injustice with All American Boys author Jason Reynolds

This summer I had the amazing opportunity to be delayed at the airport with Jason Reynolds as we waited to board our flight to St. Louis for ILA. I guess it was the fact that I was reading Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman to pass the time and he asked me what I thought of the book (I will leave my response to that question for another post). We began talking about all different writers and books. He offered me a glimpse into his writing life, his writing mentors, and I was immediately in awe. Jason Reynolds is an award winning YA author who writes honestly and authentically about urban teens today. He was mentored by the late, great Walter Dean Meyers and spins new books out every six weeks — he already has ten books in line to be published with his publisher.  I am amazed, inspired, and motivated.

Jason Reynold’s most recent book, All American Boys (2015) co written with YA author, Brendan Kiely, is a must read. The story is told from two perspectives: Rashad (African American) and Quinn (White). When Rashad is mistaken for a shoplifter, a white police officer get physically aggressive and Rashad lands in the hospital with multiple injuries. But Quinn witnessed the police brutality and he must decide whether to speak up about what he saw or stay silent.

This book is so important today as we all turn on the news and are inundated with police violence, brutality, and racial stereotyping. As one reviewer on GoodReads wrote, “This is a book to start conversations, in our classrooms and with each other. It’s a book to make you take a step back and look at bias in your own life. The power in this book lies in the stripped down simplicity-two boys, two views, one incident, which, through the honesty and realness of the characters who are dealing with complex issues of race, community, perceptions, stereotypes, and assumptions, is able to address a timely issue in a way teens will be able to relate to without feeling lectured at.”

When I read the book I knew I had something powerful, timely, and important in my hands that I needed to share with other teachers and students. This was the first book that I my students read for our Twitter Book Chat. Last night my students and I had the opportunity to talk about the book and tweet with author, Jason Reynolds. This is a dream opportunity for any teacher, to have her students talking about a book with the author in critical and reflective ways. I am so grateful to Jason for taking time to speak with my students.

Here are the discussion questions used for our All American Boys Twitter Book Chat:

Q1: We frequently see videos and news broadcasts about black people in America being intimidated, beaten, shot, and murdered by cops, one after the other after the other. How does All American Boys inform your knowledge of this? 

Q2: What surprised you and shocked you in the text? 

Q3:In the text, the boy’s basketball coach tells the team to “leave it at the door” — Rashid’s beating and hospitalization. Do schools and teachers have a responsibility to addressing these incident? Why or why not?

Q4: Is what happened to Rashad, Quinn’s problem? Should he notify the police about what he saw outside the market? Is Quinn racist?

Q5: What makes Rashid and Quinn genuine characters? What make you believe their stories, their choices, their reactions? 

Q6: How has reading this book made you more empathetic, a more compassionate human being?

Q7: What will you do differently after having read this book? How does it influence your responsibility as an Upstander? 

Q8: What does this book communicate about non violence, civil rights, and passive resistance?

Q9: Who’s story do you want to know more about? Should readers to know more about Paul’s story?

Q10: What questions do you have for the authors? 

Jason Reynolds @ILA15

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Alternative Book Reports to Promote Literature Rich Classrooms

What are our objectives when using literature in the classroom and curriculum?

To help you people find books that will be meaningful to them.

To help young people develop the habits of good readers – active readers – who make meaning of words on the page and take an active stance while reading.

Emphasize gender-fair and multicultural resources and the attitudes, interests, problems, and opportunities of young adults in contemporary society.

This summer I have gone on a young adult book binge and I am currently rethinking some of the book assessments that I offer to my students. I believe that teachers need to be interacting with young adult literature on a regular basis to explore current publications, revisit favorites, and discover new and renewed ways to connect young readers with books.  I strongly feel that teachers need to create options for students in assignments and culminating assessments. Projects should promote authentic learning and writing for real purposes.

Below are three different book assessments I have had my middle school students complete in lieu of a test to show me their reading and understanding of an independent reading text.

1. Bookseller’s Day – Hold a bookseller’s day in your classroom where each student will try and sell their independent reading book in a book talk and display. Students create a “pitch” to review and promote their book to whole class. Props, costumes, and music are encouraged and visual aids might include posters, book jackets of your own design, stickers, bookmarks, business cards, or postcards. Students prepare a  brief summary of the book, a book review, and if the book has been made into a movie, compare and contrast the book and the film.

2. Author’s Study allows students with a favorite author to complete an author’s study project. Students write a report or create a presentation that offers key biographical information about the author, genre of writing, key quotes from the author about their writing life and craft, pictures of the author and images of book covers. Students can create an annotated bibliography of the books the author has published and a one page reflection about how this writer inspired or influenced them.

3. Book Reviews – To help students dig deeper in reflection about a book he or she has read – and to avoid surface plot retelling that comes with traditional book report assignments – book reviews found in newspapers and magazines are an authentic method for evaluating a text. I often give my students guidelines for writing book reviews. Paragraph 1 offers a brief summary of the plot in 2-4 sentences with an attention grabber in the first sentence. Paragraph 2 addressed whether or not the reviewer recommends the book with reasons to back up his or her opinions. Paragraph 3 – When the book is finished, what stays with you?

Looking for more project ideas, I have written in previous posts about video projects and technology based projects to do with students as alternative book reports and assessments.

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Book Recommendation: Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory


There are a few trustworthy young adult authors that I know before I open the pages of their books I will be entranced by their writing, storytelling, and I will be unable to put the book down.  Laurie Halse Anderson is one of those author’s and it took less than 6 hours to read (thanks to another snow day) Anderson’s recent novel The Impossible Knife of Memory.  

The story is a gripping tale told from the perspective of Hayley, a high school senior in upstate New York, struggling to keep her father intact after multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Discharged from the military and awarded a purple heart, Hayley takes care of her father and carries the weight of his nightmares and PTSD. Her mother died when she was younger, and she and her father recently moved to be more grounded and live a “close to normal” life. Hayley struggles to get through her senior year of high school, hiding her and her father’s secrets from those who reach out to her.  Entranced by Hayley’s keen observations of the teachers and students around her, her sarcastic attitude, and her strength, the reader is not the only one who takes an interest her.  Finn, a friend of a childhood friend, is smitten with Hayley but she continuously pushes him away. Finn’s persistence, matched sarcasm, and kindness bring the two together.

Hayley’s teen attitude seems like a type of girl that I have read about in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and even Bella in the Twilight Sagabut Hayley’s feistiness does not detract from a memorable character who struggles daily to keep it together for father and those around her so not to draw attention.  But one can only keep the secrets and lies from bubbling over. Hayley’s story is a page turner and at the last 50 pages a sob story!  I am not talking about tears that puddle out of your eyes, but one of the loud gasps and sobs where your eyes flood with tears you cannot read on. But you wipe away the tears and read on searching for some sort of happy ending and the truth. 

Laurie Halse Anderson’s writing is truthful and not contrived. Memories are presented as vignettes throughout the story from Hayley’s father’s traumatic combat memories put into light the millions of young men and women currently struggling with PTSD and regaining some sense of normalcy after numerous tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Below are some links about  Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and Informational Texts to pair with this harrowing novel:

Definition of PTSD from the National Institute of Mental Health

Hard Road Back: A series of articles and videos chronicling the return of military vets compiled by The New York Times

Lesson Plan: Challenges and Accomplishments of Veterans from The Learning Network Blog

Lesson Plan: Comparing Veterans’ Experiences with War Poetry from The Learning Network Blog


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The One and Only Ivan: YA Book Review

Back when I was attending Syracuse University as an undergraduate, an international circus visited the city.  My husband (then boyfriend) and I decided to go see the circus performance.  Right before intermission, a bear came out riding a bicycle.  I was so upset seeing this animal dressed up and made to ride a bicycle with a trainer holding a stick behind the bear, I made us leave during the intermission promising never to see a circus with animal acts again.  I don’t consider myself a big animal rights activist but I was bothered by animals performing for human entertainment.

Fast forward to this past weekend.  At the library Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan (2012) was sitting on the book shelf ready to be checked out with the gold Newbery Medal glistening on the cover and I was inclined to take the book home.  I didn’t even read the inside book jacket. Yet, as soon as I started reading I couldn’t put the book down until I got to the end.  The book is an inspiring and thought provoking story that I will use in my classroom this year.


The One and Only Ivan is told from the perspective of a thirty year old silverback gorilla who lives at the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade.  Ivan and his sister were taken as baby gorillas from their parents in the African Congo and then sold to the mall owner.  Unfortunately, Ivan’s sister did not survive the journey. Mack, the mall’s owner, raised Ivan as if he were a human infant for the first three years before Ivan became too big.  For the past twenty seven years Ivan has been an attraction at the Big Top Mall along with an elephant and other animals.  Living behind a glass enclosed cage, or what Ivan calls his “domain,” he reflects on his life, his family, and human behavior. Ivan is “patient as a stone” and has learned a lot about humans and human behavior.  As Ivan states, “Gorillas are not complainers. We’re dreamers, poets, philosophers, nap takers.” Ivan is also an artist and makes a promise to get away from the mall to a better place, like a zoo, where he and the other animals can live a better life.

The story is engaging and the writing, elegant.  Right in the beginning I was captivated when I read sentences that read like poetry, heavy with imagery:  “Humans waste words. They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot.” The descriptions of humans leave imprints on your brain “Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say.”

Julie, the daughter of the mall’s nighttime cleaner realizes that Ivan does not belong in the glass prison housed at a mall. She sets in motion a series of events that help Ivan and the other animals get to a better place.

While reading the book I felt sorry for Ivan and the other animals, it does make a strong statement about the treatment of animals.  At the same time,  while reading I was cheering Ivan on, laughing, and excited when he finally found a new home.

The most intriguing part of this story is that it is based on an actual gorilla named Ivan who lived for twenty seven years at a mall in Washington until animal rights activists got involved and helped Ivan get moved to the Atlanta Zoo.

In 1993, The New York Times published an article about the real Ivan and his future after being kept at a mall.

Here are other text pairing for The One and Only Ivan:

Me . . . Jane (2011) by Patrick McDonnell is a picture book about a young Jane Goodall who dreams of “a life living with and helping all animals.”

Lucy – Radiolab (on NPR) did a story in 2010 about a female gorilla, Lucy, who was raised by humans (similar to Ivan). It is an interesting story with a very different ending.


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