Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

  • Title: Airborndownload
  • Author: Kenneth Oppel
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Year Published: 2005
  • ISBN: 0060531827
  • Page Count: 544
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: steampunk
  • Award(s): Printz honor

Author information: Kenneth Oppel is a Canadian author who has written more than a dozen titles for children of all ages. His website contains biographical information as well as frequently asked questions, information about his books, and upcoming news and events. He also has a portion of his website devoted to teachers, where they can find study guides for most of his novels.

Reviews:School Library Journal, Kirkus and Booklist gave this title positive reviews. They commented on the fact that this novel is full of action, adventure, and fun, and Kirkus also points out Oppel’s keen attention to detail when describing the workings of the airships. Booklist says that the reader will have to suspend disbelief when confronted with the concept of the cloud cats, but that overall it is an enthralling read.

Summary: Matt Cruse is a cabin boy aboard the Aurora, and since his father’s death it is the only place that feels like home, and his life goal is to one day be her captain. One day, Matt helps rescue a dying man and his airship and the man tells him about magical creatures before he takes his last breath. A year later, during a routine voyage, Matt meets this man’s granddaughter, Kate, who is determined to find what her grandfather saw. After being boarded and shipwrecked by pirates, Matt and Kate find themselves on the same island her grandfather spoke of, and see firsthand the creatures he wrote about. Headstrong Kate goes to increasingly aggressive lengths to document these animals so she will have proof when she returns home, but her antics ultimately jeopardize the entire airship and everyone aboard. A rescue attempt, led by Matt, will determine the fate of the passengers and crew.

Evaluation: I can understand why this book is so popular, but I was a bit surprised to learn that it won a Printz honor. Oppel does a fantastic job of world-building and placing the reader in the narrative, and the pacing is that edge-of-your-seat, what-happens-next style that is middle grade gold. I loved the setting and all of the descriptive passages, and I also enjoyed the fact that it felt like an old-school, classic adventure story a la Treasure Island, but with an updated backdrop. However, I didn’t think the characters were very compelling. Matt struck me as being very one-note: most of his interior thoughts are about how much he loves his airship and feels at home on it, which is important for character development up to a point, but I feel like that’s all we got from him. Kate bothered me even more. It feels as though Oppel needed to fill his Strong Female Character quota and so he created Kate, but she just ends up coming across as stubborn, selfish, and short-sighted. There is much to like here, and I know exactly the type of reader I could give this book to, but it sadly didn’t resonate with me the way I had hoped it would.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  The writing and descriptive passages of the book are engaging, but the plot is predictable and the characters feel more like caricatures than real people, especially Kate in her role as Strong Female Character (who actually ruins everything).
  • Popularity: 4/5  Readers looking for light action and adventure will enjoy this title. The steampunk setting, cloud cats, pirates, narrow escapes and ultimate triumph make this a title that’s easy to recommend, especially to younger fantasy/sci-fi readers who might not be ready for something heavier yet.
  • Appeal factors: steampunk, pirates, mythical creatures, action/adventure.


  1.  Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld is an obvious choice for readers who enjoyed this book. Both titles are set in a steampunk alternate past where airships rule the skies. Both have likeable young male protagonists and plucky female characters who aren’t content with their social roles. Leviathan has more of a war/political bent, whereas Airborn is more of a traditional pirate/adventure story.
  2. Another good steampunk recommendation would be Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines. Hester is clearly more of a badass female character than Kate, but there are some parallels between them, as well as between Tom and Matt, the male protagonists. Airborn is the lighter of the two, as Reeve doesn’t hesitate to kill or hurt his main characters, but both books showcase children/teens trying to save their homes and way of life (with varying levels of success or enlightenment along the way).
  3. Readers who enjoyed the traditional pirate/shipwreck story would likely enjoy a classic such as Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Pirates, swashbuckling, mysterious clues in the form of journals and maps, and tropical islands abound in both titles.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why does Matt feel so connected to the Aurora?
  2. Both Matt and Kate are limited by their circumstances: Matt is poor, and Kate is a girl. How do they work to overcome these obstacles? Do you think they get what they want by the end of the book?
  3. Why do you think Oppel decided to set this book in an alternate reality past? Does this work? Why or why not?
  4. On several occasions in Airborn, Matt disobeys the orders of his captain. What motivates him to do so?
  5. Is Matt a hero?
  6. Do you like the character of Kate? Is she strong? Selfish?
  7. In what ways are Matt and the cloud cat similar?

Reason for reading: This is one of those titles that has been on my to-read list for years. I like steampunk (Mortal Engines is one of my favorite young YA books) and Airborn has gotten pretty positive reviews from both my co-workers and the online community. What finally pushed this book to the top of my reading pile is the fact that I’m hosting a middle school book club at the library, and this is the selection for this month. This particular group also really loves steampunk and science fiction (we’ve done both Mortal Engines and Leviathan with them), so I expect this will also get a good response from them (but I will report back).

**Reporting back** I had 11 middle schoolers (most of them rising 6th graders) who attended our book club event for this title. 8 of them liked the book, 1 did not, and 2 didn’t finish it. The ones who enjoyed it liked the heavy action and the humor of the book, whereas the girl who didn’t thought it was predictable and didn’t feel engaged with the characters.

Additional relevant information: This book is the first in a triology. Airborn was optioned for a movie in 2012 with Oppel to write the preliminary script and be an executive producer, but I was unable to find any current information about this project.


The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

  • Title: The 5th Wave
  • Author: Rick Yancey
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 0399162410
  • List Price: $18.99
  • Page Count: 592
  • Age Range: 13+
  • Genre: science fiction
  • Award(s): New York Times Bestseller; YALSA 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults; Carnegie Medal in Literature Nominee

Author information: Rick Yancey has written numerous titles for teens and adults. His websiteincludes a biography about himself, links to all of his titles, contact information and appearance dates, and a link to his blog. His blog only has three posts, but all of them are from 2013, which means that it may just be a recent blog that is updated infrequently. One of the posts was a list of twelve things the reader didn’t know about the author. His website also includes his Twitter feed, which is updated regularly. His most recent posts have to do with the casting of a film adaptation of The 5th Wave as well as information and book trailers for upcoming and more recent books.

Reviews: This title was given starred reviews by Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly as well as a Perfect Ten from VOYA and a favorable review from School Library Journal. SLJ comments on the fact that this novel has strong multi-dimensional characters and is fast paced with many plot twists and turns. Multiple reviews mention that its dystopian plot and setting will appeal to young adults, especially fans of The Hunger Games. Kirkus says:

The 500-plus-page novel surges forward full throttle with an intense, alarming tone full of danger, deceit and a touch of romance. The plot flips back and forth with so much action and so many expert twists that readers will constantly question whom they can trust and whom they can’t. Best of all, everything feels totally real, and that makes it all the more riveting.

Summary: Cassie is a teenage girl who is fighting for survival in a dystopian Earth that is systematically being attacked by an alien race. They have sent four waves of destruction to kill humankind: an EMP wave that disrupted and disabled all electronics, from phones and computers to car and airplane technology. The second wave was a huge metalic rod dropped from the sky that caused massive tsunamis and wiped out all of the coastal coutnries and states. Following that was the third wave, a plague carried by bird that killed the vast majority of the human population. The fourth wave was the Silencers, human-looking assassins that have been tasked with picking off survivors. Cassie has survived the first four waves and is trying to locate her brother, from whom she was separated after the third wave. Another teenager, Ben, has also survived the waves and has been taken to a military camp to train to annihilate the aliens and reclaim the Earth. Both Cassie and Ben learn that nothing is as it seems, and that they must constantly be wary of trusting others.

Evaluation: This title truly packs a double whammy: a gripping plot and beautiful, evocative writing. Yancey does a tremendous job of creating a bleak and terrifying dystopian world as seen through the eyes of two young survivors. Cassie’s character seems realistic: she tough and hardened by everything she’s experienced, but she has moments of panic and vulnerability that elevate her above a stereotypical “strong female character” trope. The themes of trust, family, promises, and survival that recur throughout the novel add a deeper layer to what could easily have been a campy book and make this title a gem for book clubs. And although the premise of this book is aliens committing genocide against humankind, it absolutely makes the reader think about other, actual instances of genocide and mass murder that have occurred throughout human history. While the romantic element of the novel wasn’t my favorite plot thread of the book, I do think it worked and was plausible given the extreme circumstances Cassie endured. There are some plot points that were perhaps easy to predict, but there are enough twists in the novel to keep even the most experienced reader on her toes.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  Not only does the plot draw in readers from the first page and make it difficult to set the book down, but the writing is beautiful and poignant and would hold up to multiple readings. The 5th Wave reflects on many of the most fundamental themes of being human–love, trust, survival, family, loneliness–which is guaranteed to be thought provoking and generate discussion.
  • Popularity: 5/5  The dystopian setting, compelling characters, fast plot, and of course, the premise of alien invasion is sure to pique the interest of many young adults. This is a novel that, once finished, begs to be recommended to friends or discussed in a book club.
  • Appeal factors: aliens, violence, lyrical writing, survival, dystopia, war, trilogies, strong female characters.


  1.  I am Number Four by Pitticus Lore would be a good suggestion for readers who don’t shy away from violence and like the concept of a murderous race of aliens set on destruction. While Number Four incorporates teenage aliens with superpowers and can be more campy than Yancey’s title, both have a lot of action and are fast paced.
  2. Readers who liked reading about Cassie’s struggles for survival may appreciate the struggles of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Both leading characters have witnessed unspeakable horrors and injustices, and they are both motivated by their love and desire to protect their younger siblings.
  3. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card also offers a look at humanity vs. aliens. The military training and brainwashing that Ender endures is akin to what Sam, Cassie’s brother, goes through at the Others’ training facility.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Do you agree with Cassie’s argument that “only the strong” remain by the time the 5th wave hits? Why or why not?
  2. Which wave did you find the scariest? Why? Was there a particular moment or scene that you found particularly horrifying?
  3. Cassie is compared to a mayfly, why? If you compared yourself to an insect, what would you be and why?
  4. Discuss how trust is built and destroyed in this book. How do you think the sowing of suspicion plays into the Others’ plan to destroy humanity?

Reason for reading: I will admit that I probably have a bias regarding this book. I love science fiction and dystopias, and I think that Rick Yancey is one of greatest YA horror writers alive today. That being said, I had very high expectations regarding this book, and it didn’t disappoint. Because of the nature of being a youth librarian, I’ll often read the first title in a trilogy or series and feel like I’ve gotten enough from that first book that I can confidently recommend the series or author to the appropriate audience without reading on. The Fifth Wave is one of the rare books that not only got me to read the second in the series (The Infinite Sea), but it got me to do so the very next day. I’ve become a huge 5th Wave fangirl and am eagerly anticipating the release of the movie and final book.

Additional relevant information: Chunk Wendig (another YA author) interviewed Rick Yancey about The 5th Wave on his blog. Yancey answers questions about his favorite paragraph in the book, how he got the idea for the novel, and what the most difficult part of writing it was. It’s a very quick interview, but one that fans of the book will enjoy, as it adds insight and texture to the novel they already love.

This novel also has a pretty fabulous book trailer. A film is set to release January 2016, but currently there is no trailer for the movie.

Great Audiobooks Lists for Different Age Groups

Awesome Audiobooks

Ages 6-8

1. Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater

2. Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary

3. Matilda by Roald Dahl

4. Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett

5. The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

6. Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales edited by Nelson Mandela

7. Magic Treehouse Books 1-8 by Mary Pope Osbourne

8. The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck

9. The One and Only Shrek by William Steig

10. Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

Awesome Audiobooks

Ages 8-10

1.  Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko  

2. Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

3. How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

4.  The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

5. Gone Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright

6. Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

7. A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

8. From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by     E. L. Konigsburg

9. Cold Cereal by Adam Rex

10. The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events) by Lemony Snicket

Awesome Audiobooks

Ages 10-12

1. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

2. The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis

3. The Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke

4. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos

5. Hoot by Carl Hiaasen

6. The Merchant of Death by D. J. MacHale

7. The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman

8. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

9. Holes by Louis Sachar

10. Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

A list of all of the titles reviewed for this project.

Picture Books:

  1. Journey by Aaron Becker
  2. Fables by Arnold Lobel
  3. Grandpa Green by Lane Smith
  4. The Spider and the Fly by Tony DiTerlizzi 
  5. Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
  6. The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley
  7. Golem by David Wisniewski
  8. Marshmallow by Clare Turlay Newberry 
  9. The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
  10. The Three Questions by Jon Muth
  11. Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King by Doreen Rappaport
  12. There Is a Bird on Your Head! by Mo Willems
  13. A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant
  14. Peppe the Lamplighter by Elisa Bartone
  15. Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore


Children’s Books:

  1. Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
  2. A Cricket in Times Square by George Selden
  3. The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, and Treachery by Steve Sheinkin
  4. Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
  5. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
  6. The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes
  7. Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
  8. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
  9. Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
  10. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz
  11. Hoot by Carl Hiassen
  12. The Story of Mankind by Hendrik van Loon
  13. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  14. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
  15. Doll Bones by Holly Black


Young Adult Books:

  1. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson
  2. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
  3. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
  4. Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aiden Chambers
  5. Repossessed by A. M. Jenkins
  6. Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler
  7. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
  8. The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey
  9. The Nazi Hunters by Neal Bascomb
  10. The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
  11. Looking for Alaska by John Green
  12. The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
  13. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
  14. March: Book One by John Lewis, Nate Powell, and Andrew Aydin
  15. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

  • Title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
  • Author: Robin Sloan
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Year Published: 2012
  • ISBN: 0374214913
  • List Price: $25.00
  • Page Count: 304
  • Age Range: 15+
  • Genre: magical realism
  • Award(s): Alex Award Winner

Author information: This is Sloan’s debut novel. His website is fairly sparse, but it does include a short biography, a link to information about Mr. Penumbra, a link to sign up for his email newsletter, as well as a variety of short pieces (articles, short stories, etc) that fans can read online. Mother Jones interviewd Sloan about his debut novel, and the interview discusses such topics as D&D, San Francisco, the inspiration for Neel, Clay, and The Dragonsong Chronicles, and the theme of immortality. The interview also talks about Sloan’s writing process and his use of the app, Freedom (which is an Internet blocker so that he cannot access distracting websites while he’s writing), which he credits with being able to finish his book.

Reviews: It was difficult to find reviews of this title from traditional sources. Publisher’s Weekly reviewed the title, but didn’t provide much more than a synopsis of the plot and a comment on its happy ending. Other sources, like NPR, Newsweek, and the San Francisco Chronicle, were more effusive. They all comment upon Sloan’s ability to weave a traditional quest narrative seamlessly with a modern day techno-world, incorporating elements of Google and elements of centuries old secret societies side by side. Entertainment Weekly sums Sloan’s novel up thus:  “Sloan grounds his jigsawlike plot with Big Ideas about the quest for permanence in the digital age”.

Readers annotation: When Clay got a job at a bookstore, he didn’t realize he would be thrown into a world of secret societies, conspiracies, and the opportunity to discover the meaning of life.

Summary: Clay is laid off from his job, and, in a fit of desperation, takes the night shift at a shady 24-hour bookstore. He notices that most of the customers that come in are borrowing titles from the “waybacklist”, a collection of books that are not sold, but borrowed. His curiosity piqued, Clay discovers that these people are members of a secret society devoted to finding the secret of immortality. This quest takes him and his friends everywhere from the Google campus to a secret reading room in New York City. Eventually, Clay is able to decipher the original text written by Manutius, the founder of this secret sect, and he discovers that it does not contain an easy answer to the question of immortality. Rather, it suggests that the only way to become immortal is by living on through the work you do when you are alive.

Evaluation: I have incredibly mixed feelings about this title–moreso than I think I’ve had about any of the other books I’ve reviewed. I loved the conceit. Setting a quest narrative in modern day San Francisco and incorporating so many aspects of technology is brilliant and sure to attract readers looking for a fresh take on the fantasy novel. Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore and Mr. Penumbra himself are incredibly likable and the reader is immediately drawn into their world. The storyline–that Mr. Penumbra is a foward-thinker who, with the help of Clay and friends, might be able to finally solve the mystery of Manutius if the villainous leader of the secret society weren’t trying to thwart their efforts, is compelling and readers will eagerly follow this story wherever it is going. The difficulty with this book is that the plot deteriorates from there. Clay eventually does find the way to decode Manutius’ pivotal text, but discovers that there are no secrets hidden within his story. The novel ends with the suggestion that true immortality comes from the friendships and bonds we build in this life, as well as the works we accomplish. This ending is a letdown for readers who expected a bit of a flashier ending. Although I did not expect that the characters would unlock the key to immortality, I was hoping for something less trite than “friendship is the most important thing”. I admire Sloan for the scope of this novel, but feel that at times the focus became scattered and the payoff at the end was disappointing. I do see the appeal this title would have to a teenage audience though; most of the characters are tech savvy young adventurers, which many teens will identify with.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5 A fun blend of high fantasy and high tech, this novel breathes new life into the fantasy genre in light of all of our technological achievements. The premise is strong, but the narrative wanders and the ending leaves much to be desired.
  • Popularity4/5  The mixing of high fantasy and high tech, modern and ancient, digital and analog, is sure to delight readers, and one look at Penumbra’s bookstore will hook them.
  • Appeal factors: magical realism, technology, bookstores, secret societies, Google.


  1.  The Magicians by Lev Grossman might be a good fit for readers who enjoyed the juxtaposition of high fantasy with an urban setting. Like Clay, Quentin Coldwater doesn’t believe in magic until he’s accepted into a magical and sinister school. Combining common tropes and ideas from childhood fantasy classics, this book is a modern-day fantasy for sophisticated readers.
  2. Readers who liked the magical realism aspect of Sloan’s novel may enjoy The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. Like Sloan’s book, this title’s use of magic lets the reader decide whether or not it is real, and incorporates serious themes such as growing up, loss, and destiny.

Book talk ideas: The best way to book talk this title would be by describing Mr. Penumbra’s store. Tell potential readers to imagine that they’re going to San Francisco for the day, and after they’ve done all their shopping and sight-seeing and wandering, they discover a small, hole-in-the-wall bookstore. It claims to be open 24 hours a day, and when you walk in, the shelves are so high that you need a ladder to reach the books at the top. After describing this scene, give a bit of plot details and explain how Clay ends up working there and discovers that there’s more to the little bookstore than meets the eye, and this discovery sends him on a hunt that takes him everywhere from the Google campus to a hidden underground reading room.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Clay assigns his friends archetypes for their “quest” (wizard, rogue, etc.). Why do you think he does this?
  2. How do you think the high-tech/low-tech interplay worked in the novel? What do you think this says about the relationship of the two in real life.
  3. Do you agree with Clay’s assertion at the end of the book, that creating lasting works and relationships are the key to immortality? Why or why not?

Reason for reading: As mentioned in a previous review, I was interested in looking at Alex award winners and seeing why they were chosen as having appeal to a young adult audience. The title of this book intrigued me (what aspiring librarian isn’t immediately taken with the prospect of a hole-in-the-wall, more-than-it-seems, 24-hour bookstore?) and I decided it would be a great way to round out my reviews for this class.

Additional relevant information: Mr. Penumbra grew out of a short story that Sloan had written, and is available on his website. He also wrote a short story to coincide with the paperback release of the novel, following Ajax Penumbra and how he came to find the bookstore that he owns when Clay finds him. This story is available on a variety of platforms, but can be purchased on Amazon for $2.99.

March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

  • Title: March: Book One
  • Author: John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
  • Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 1603093001
  • List Price: $14.95 (paperback)
  • Page Count: 128
  • Age Range: 12+
  • Genre: historical nonfiction/autobiography
  • Award(s): YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens;  Coretta Scott King Book Award Author Honor

Author information: John Lewis is a United States Congressman, representing Georgia’s fifth district since 1986. He has written his biography for adults, but March is his first title for a younger audience and the first in the graphic novel format. His website focuses primarily on his government work, with sections of the site devoted to legislation he has and continues to work on, his congressional district, contact information, resources, and information about professional and internship opportunities. ComicsAlliance interviewed Lewis and co-author/artist Andrew Aydin about the book. Lewis says that Aydin was the one who convinced him to do a graphic novel retelling of his biography, and he’s glad that he did it because he feels it brings his story to life and makes it more present and dynamic.

Reviews: Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, and Kirkus all gave this title starred reviews. They all agree that this is a powerfully told tale about our nation’s history, and that the graphic novel format helps bring John Lewis’ life story alive to a new generation. The artwork gives the book a “visual, visceral punch” (Library Journal). Former President Bill Clinton also reviewed this title, and said, “Congressman John Lewis has been a resounding moral voice in the quest for equality for more than 50 years, and I’m so pleased that he is sharing his memories of the Civil Rights Movement with America’s young leaders. In March, he brings a whole new generation with him across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, from a past of clenched fists into a future of outstretched hands.”

Readers annotation: John Lewis has lived a remarkable life, from a chicken farm to the United States House of Representatives. And he has changed the course of our nation’s history.

Summary: John Lewis is well known as a key figure in the civil rights movement as well as a current United States Congressman, and this book tells the story of his life and his fight for justice and equal rights. The first in a three part series, this book covers Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama and his experiences raising chickens on his family’s farm. In high school he became very serious about his studies and his desire to make a difference, and after a meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. he decided he wanted to fight to be accepted at a non-integrated university. His family was wary of this and would not give their permission, but Lewis found other ways to get involved in the civil rights movement. He was involved in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins, a movement dedicated to non-violent social change. This first book is set against a modern backdrop; Lewis is talking to a mother and her children about his life right before he attends the inauguration of the first black president, Barack Obama.

Evaluation: This is a very powerful book. The use of the graphic novel format makes John Lewis’ story immediate and urgent in a way that a traditional retelling would not, and the medium also allows a younger audience to connect with Lewis and the civil rights movement in a new way. The story of Lewis’ youth is framed against his life as a U.S. Congressman about to attend Barack Obama’s inauguration, and this conceit works beautifully on many levels–it shows how far the United States as a nation has come and how far it still has to go, and it makes explicit the fact that Lewis is telling this story to a new generation who may not understand what the social and political climate was like in the 1950s and 60s. Lewis is a supremely likable protagonist, both in his modern Congressman iteration as well as when he is a naive young boy learning about racism and segregation for the first time. The story that he tells about how he joins the non-violence movement and his experience with the lunch counter sit-ins is better than any fiction retellings of these events and reminds readers that this is a real thing that happened only a few decades ago. This first installment is bound to intrigue readers and make them eager for the forthcoming books, and it brings new life to a crucial period in United States history.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5 The artwork is beautiful and visceral, Lewis is a compelling protagonist, and the story is riveting.
  • Popularity4/5  As reluctant as kids and teenagers often are when it comes to reading nonfiction, the graphic novel format of this title will curb many doubts and cause readers who don’t usually read nonfiction to give this title a try. Those who read it won’t be disappointed, and will eagerly await the next installments of this series.
  • Appeal factors: historical nonfiction, Civil Rights, John Lewis, graphic novels.


  1.  Readers who are interested in exploring another graphic novel set in the Civil Rights era should check out Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse. This title looks at segregation and civil rights as well as homophobia during the 1960s, and does a good job representing the prejudices that racial and sexual minorities faced during this time.
  2. Both John Lewis and Andrew Aydin mention that Art Spiegelman’s Maus was a heavy influence on their work, and it would be a good recommendation for readers who liked March‘s nonfiction and autobiographical subject presented in graphic novel form. Like March, Maus shifts between events that happened in the past and frames them as a story told in the present, and both titles show the cruelty of humankind as well as its resilient spirit.

Book talk ideas: I would stress the fact that this a true story written by a key player in civil rights movement, who is currently a United States Congressman. It would be useful to show a portion of the artwork (maybe a page or two from the sit-ins or the preparation the protesters did for the sit-ins) to give potential readers an idea of what the artwork looks like and the visceral experience that reading this story as a graphic novel allows. It may also be interesting to ask the audience how many of them have even heard of John Lewis, to see how familiar they are with the subject.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why did the key players of the civil rights movement stress non-violence? What do you think this accomplished?
  2. John Lewis’ family didn’t want him to try to integrate a university. Do you agree with their decision? Why or why not?
  3. How does using the graphic novel form enhance the telling of Lewis’ story?

Reason for reading: I did my topical presentation about graphic novels. I love the format, and I think it provides a perfect medium to tell emotionally intense nonfiction stories (like Maus, Persepolis, Pyongyang, etc.) because it makes the narrative very immediate and visceral. This title wasn’t on my radar until I did my presentation and saw it on the YALSA Great Graphic Novels list, and that, coupled with the response to discussing the title during the actual presentation, convinced me that it was something I needed to read immediately. 

Additional relevant information: The ComicsAlliance interview with Lewis and Aydin is wonderful, and would be a great tool for teachers or librarians who plan to feature this title in programming or the classroom. In the interview, they talk about collaborating on the book, how it came to be, and also talk about specific scenes, such as the one where Lewis and his friends prepare each other for the abuse they might face during the course of the movement. This gives great insight into some of the artistic and creative decisions that were made with the book. The interview also discusses the decision to frame this book as a story told on Inauguration Day, which both writers felt was important because “generations from now people will forget what that meant. They’ll be raised not remembering what it was like before we had our first black president. So hopefully this will in some way not just help people look forward, but help those in the future be able to look backward, and remember where we were then and how long that took, how much that took, and what the opportunities we have today mean and they open up for all of us.”

Doll Bones by Holly Black

  • Title: Doll Bones
  • Author: Holly Black
  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books
  • Year Published: 2013
  • ISBN: 1416963987
  • List Price: $17.99
  • Page Count: 256
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: horror/speculative fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor Book; Carnegie Medal Nominee for Young Adult

Author information: Holly Black has written a number of novels for both young adults and children, as well as some in a graphic novel format. Her website includes contact information, biographical information, appearance information, FAQs, as well as information about and links to all of her titles. She also includes links to her livejournal and blog, which discuss items of relevance in Black’s day-to-day life. She also has a section on her website discussing writing tips and techniques, complete with links and suggestions of other materials that might help an aspiring young writer.

Reviews: School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly all gave this title starred reviews. All of these reviews discuss the fact that Black does a great job creating characters that readers will care about, placing them on the precipice of leaving childhood behind. She portrays her characters realistically and readers will sympathize with their struggles. School Library Journal also articulates the fact that this book blends a wide variety of different genres and styles into one cohesive narrative, saying “this novel is a chilling ghost story, a gripping adventure, and a heartwarming look at the often-painful pull of adulthood”.

Readers annotation: Eleanor’s ghost wants to be laid to rest. And Zach, Poppy, and Alice must help her.

Summary: Zach has grown up with his two best friends, Poppy and Alice, and the three of them play elaborate fantasy game involving figurines, dolls, and action figures for years. Zach’s dad decides Zach is too old to be playing these games, so he throws out all of his game characters, which causes him to quit the game without explanation to Poppy or Alice. Although their game playing days might be over, Poppy confesses that she’s been having strange nightmares about the old china doll in her house, and she convinces Zach and Alice to accompany her on a real-life journey to put the ghost of the girl in the doll to rest. Nothing goes according to plan and the ghost becomes more sinister as the quest goes on, but eventually they are able to learn more about her past and locate the graveyard where she belongs and inter her remains. Along the way, they learn a lot about each other, growing up and leaving behind the innocence of childhood, and Zach reconciles with his father.

Evaluation: This novel defies easy categorization. It has elements of quest narratives, coming-of-age stories, horror, fantasy, and realistic fiction, all of which come together for a gripping and entertaining read. Zach’s struggles with growing up will resonate with all young readers who are trying to learn to navigate a new world in which they have more responsibilities, more freedom, and more anxieties about fitting in and being part of a larger social sphere. The relationship between Zach and his father is especially well crafted; the difficulties they have communicating and the confusion and resentment they both feel towards one another is believable, and the ending, in which they forgive each other and vow to work harder at their relationship, is an honest and not overly easy happy ending.  These struggles play out against an eerie backdrop of ghosts and late-night journeys that build suspense and keep the reader intrigued and wanting to read more. The ghost in the doll is truly creepy, and the way that the author refuses to decide for the reader whether the ghost and haunting the children experience is real or not leaves the story ambiguous enough that readers can come to their own conclusions.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5 The themes explored in this book are important and relevant to many children, the plot is entertaining with a perfect amount of spine-tingling scares, and the characters and their relationships are honest and believable.
  • Popularity4/5  The creepiness of this book may deter some readers who scare easily, but those who enjoy some horror and darkness in their novels will love this book. The pacing, characterization, and plot are sure to find many fans.
  • Appeal factors: horror, speculative fiction, growing up, troubled parent-child relationships, creepy dolls.


  1.  The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is a natural recommendation for readers who love a dose of spooky in their fiction. Nobody Owens, the protagonist, grows up in a graveyard raised by ghosts, and has to confront the man who murdered his family. Like Doll Bones, this novel emphasizes the relationships between characters and the idea of growing up.
  2. Fans of the undercurrent of menace and urgency in Doll Bones would likely enjoy Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee. Based on the fairy tale of the Snow Queen, this title highlights themes like friendship, courage, and perseverance.

Book talk ideas: The trailer for this book is delightfully creepy and would be a perfect introduction to a book talk about this book because it would let children know right away if the book will be too scary for them. If they love the trailer, the book will be a great fit for them, but if they thought it was too creepy, then it’s probably a good indicator that they shouldn’t check it out. After the trailer, talk about the friendship between the three main characters and how they decide to go on a modern day journey to put a ghost girl’s remains to rest. On the way, they learn a lot about themselves, each other, and growing up and leaving childhood behind.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Do you think that Eleanor’s ghost was real? Why or why not?
  2. How do you think each of the characters change over the course of their quest? Who changed the most?
  3. Why do you think Zach’s relationship with his father is so strained?
  4. In your opinion, what is the hardest part of growing up? What are Zach, Poppy, and Alice afraid to lose by growing up?

Reason for reading: This book has been getting a lot of attention recently (not only did it win a Newbery Honor, but a lot of blogs have been talking about it, and it shows up on a ton of lists of “best children’s books of 2013) and I wanted to know what all the buzz was about. I also wanted to read something that was a little scarier, because I feel like I don’t have a lot of good recommendations for books when it comes to young readers who like reading books that will scare them a little. I felt this book would definitely fall into that category, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Additional relevant information: Holly Black also recently published a YA vampire book that has received positive reviews. Publisher’s Weekly interviewed her about this title, and she talks about why she decided to write a vampire book as well as her inspirations and writing process.