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.

Read-alikes: 

  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.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

  • Title: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
  • Author: Grace Lin
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2009
  • ISBN: 0521021960
  • List Price: $17.00
  • Page Count: 288
  • Age Range: 8-12
  • Genre: fantasy/mythology
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor Book; more here.

Author information: Grace Lin has authored and illustrated books for a wide age range of children. Her website includes biographical information, contact information, and tour and event dates. It also includes a link to her blog, which focuses on activities and events that are releavnt to Lin’s life and work, such as a recent play production of one of her books and her advocacy for diversity in children’s books. Her webpage also includes links to all of her titles, as well as supplementary materials for parents and teachers such as craft ideas, discussion questions, and lesson suggestions.

Reviews: School Library Journal and Booklist both gave this title starred reviews. Both reviews comment upon the beauty of the illustrations as well as the use of Chinese folklore to further the plot and add texture and depth to Minli’s world. Booklist and SLJ agree that Minli is resourceful, smart., and an engaging protagonist, and that readers will be rooting for her. In regards to the novel as a whole, Booklist had this to say: “Children will embrace this accessible, timeless story about the evil of greed and the joy of gratitude”.

Readers annotation: Minli wants to change her fortune, but will the Old Man of the Moon tell her how?

Summary: Minli is a young girl who lives in the shadow of the Fruitless Mountain and works the fields with her parents. Her family is poor, and her mother often laments their lot in life, while her father tells her fantastic stories about dragons and adventures. Minli decides to change her family’s fortunes, and so she goes off in search of the Old Man of the Moon to ask him how to do so. On the way, she befriends a dragon, meets a prince, and spends time with a family that seems to have discovered the secret of happiness. When she gets the the Old Man of the Moon, he tells her she may only ask one question, so she sacrifices her answer about how to change her fortune in order to ask him why her dragon friend can’t fly. This decision turns out to answer her own question as well; when the dragon flies to the Fruitless Mountain, it becomes bountiful and her family prospers. Although her family becomes financially rich, Minli’s adventures taught them all that happiness with loved ones is the most important treasure of all.

Evaluation: This is an utterly charming book. Lin weaves the narrative of Minli and her family with short fables and folktales that turn out to be significant to Minli’s adventure, layering different types of storytelling and myths into one cohesive story. The use of different colors to differentiate between Minli’s story and the folktales is eye-catching and makes the narrative easy to follow and keeps the reader aware of what part of the book she is currently reading. Minli is an enjoyable protagonist and the reader wants her to succeed in her quest, and secondary characters, like the father and the dragon, are nice complements to Minli’s story. Minli’s mother is one of the more interesting secondary characters due to her harshness at the beginning of the novel and her transformation as she realizes what is truly important to her, which is her family. Lin presents a good moral message as well as uses themes like friendship, family, and the meaning of happiness throughout the novel, which gives the reader much to think about. The ending, which provides happiness for all of the characters, is welcome and sure to put a smile on any reader’s face. The artwork is stunning and richly detailed, and provides a wonderful complement to this delightful book.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 4/5  The use of storytelling within the greater narrative works well and enriches the novel as a whole. The characters are sympathetic and the happy ending is well-deserved.
  • Popularity: 4/5 Readers will enjoy the miniature stories within Minli’s tale, which break up the narrative into easily digestible pieces and factor into Minli’s story later on. The fantasy and mythology aspects of the novel will appeal to many readers, especially as it stems from a tradition (Chinese) that isn’t as prevalent in writing for this age group.
  • Appeal factors: mythology and folklore, dragons, families, happy endings, stories within stories.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who want to delve deeper into stories told against a mythological backdrop may enjoy Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. This series follows Percy, a modern day kid, who discovers that not only are Greek gods real, but that one of them is his father.
  2. For readers who enjoyed Lin’s fantastic story of Minli uses Chinese folklore as a backdrop, her book Starry River of the Sky would be a good fit. Like Mountain, Starry River follows a young protagonist and interweaves Chinese myths into the main narrative.

Book talk ideas: One way to approach this book talk would be to read one of the folklore stories out loud to potential readers, to give them an idea of how the book works. After doing that, tell readers that this novel follows Minli’s journey to change her destiny, and that stories like the one they just heard pepper the novel and influence Minli’s destiny. Also, possibly ask the audience if any of them have read other popular mythology/folklore stories, such as the Percy Jackson series, and suggest that this is a similar type of book but that it focuses on a different folkloric tradition: that of China rather than the more familiar Greek.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Why does the author choose to tell stories within the main narrative? What effect does this have?
  2. Describe Minli’s relationship with her parents? Why is her relationship with her father so different from the one she has with her mother?
  3. What is the most important lesson that Minli learns on her journey?

Reason for reading: I wanted to diversifying the types of books I was reading for this project, and try to include other cultures whenever possible. I found this title on a list of Newbery books (possibly on Goodreads, but I don’t remember for certain) and was intrigued by reading a book with roots in Chinese folklore, and this book did not disappoint. Before requesting it from the library, I really knew nothing about the plot other than what I gleaned from the cover, so it was a pleasant surprise.

Additional information: Grace Lin has been very active in the We Need Diverse Books campaign. This campaign (which just occurred last week, May 1-3, 2014) was a social media call to action in support of diversity in children’s literature. It asked for people to photograph themselves with a sign expressing the importance of diversity in children’s books and then upload it to Twitter, followed by Twitter chat and push to encourage diversity in libraries and bookstores. Since this is a very recent campaign, I look forward to learning more about it and its impact over the coming months.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

  • Title: When You Reach Me
  • Author: Rebecca Stead
  • Publisher: Yearling
  • Year Published: 2009
  • ISBN:0375850864
  • List Price: $17.20
  • Page Count: 208
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: mystery/speculative fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Award winner; more here.

Author information: Rebecca Stead has written three books for young readers. Her website is clearly geared towards this young audience and features a huge visual component. Her website has links to information about all of her books, a biography, a link to her blog which includes information about upcoming appearances and what Stead is currently reading and doing, and a link to resources for teachers. Amazon has an interview with Stead in which she discusses her creative choices for When You Reach Me, such as setting the book in the 1970s, writing in short chapters, and the use of A Wrinkle in Time in the novel. One of her reasons for setting the book in the not-so-distant past is that she wanted her characters to have a level of autonomy that probably would no longer seem authentic in modern day New York City.

Reviews: This title received starred reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and the Horn Book. The consensus among these reviews is that the plot is suspenseful and Stead does a fantastic job of keeping a high level of suspense while wrapping everything up in a satisfactory way at the end. Both PW and Horn Book suggest that this is the type of book a reader will want to start reading again immediately after finishing it, so that they can pick up on all the clues they may have missed. Booklist also compliments the rich characters Stead presents, saying, “the characters, children, and adults are honest bits of humanity no matter in what place or time their souls rest”.

Readers annotation: Miranda is receiving unusual notes from a mysterious stranger. But who are they from and what do they mean?

Summary: Miranda is a sixth grader who lives with her mother. Her best friend Sal gets punched in the face by Marcus, another boy, for seemingly no reason, and then Sal stops talking to Miranda. Miranda makes other friends, and even gets a job during her lunchtimes with them serving sandwiches. Although these seem like the ordinary occurrences of a middle schooler’s life, Miranda’s life is anything but normal. There is a strange laughing man who hangs out on the corner of her street and she keeps getting strange letters from somebody who seems to know a lot about her life. This all begins to make sense when Marcus, while trying to apologize to Sal for punching him, scares him into the street in oncoming traffic. The laughing man sacrifices his life to save Sal, and Miranda discovers that the laughing man is really a time-traveling Marcus who has come back to make things right.

Evaluation: The strength of this book lies in the subtle clues that are interwoven in the narrative that lead the reader to the surprise reveal at the end. Throughout the story, the reader knows that something strange is going on, but the conclusion will still be surprising to most readers. Miranda is a likable character, and even though she is dealing with some extraordinary situations, such as receiving mysterious notes and being at the center of a time travel rescue mission, she still has typical middle school problems. Her struggles to make friends and make sense of her collapsing friendship with Sal will resonate with young readers dealing with similar trials as they grow up and navigate school. The time travel twist at the end is set up expertly and supported throughout the story, making the ending reasonable and satisfying to readers. However, though I found this title to be enjoyable, I also found it to be one of the least memorable books I’ve read this semester. I think that it excels in being an entertaining and quick read that will engage readers, but it lacks enough substance to warrant re-reading (at least for me) and the details of the story are easily forgotten.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality:  3/5  An engaging and light read, with plenty of twists and a satisfying ending that readers will enjoy. Although it touches on more serious topics, like friendship, family relationships, race, responsibility, and fitting in, this title still seems to be more of a fluffy read.
  • Popularity: 4/5 Because of the mysterious plotline and the clues that are peppered throughout the narrative, readers will love trying to solve this mystery before the book ends. The characters are likable and the conclusion fits perfectly with the rest of the novel.
  • Appeal factors: time travel, friendships, mystery, speculative fiction.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Readers who enjoyed this novel may also like Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. This title is mentioned throughout Stead’s book, and takes a similarly scientific approach to time and dimension travel.
  2. Wonder by R. J. Palacio might be a good fit for readers who liked reading about Miranda’s struggles to make friends after being ignored by Sal. Palacio’s protagonist, Auggie, is physically deformed and has to deal with the difficulty of building relationships and being “normal” in spite of his looks.

Book talk ideas: I think the premise of this novel will really grab potential readers. Explain that Miranda is a typical middle school girl growing up in the 1970s in New York City, but she suddenly starts receiving urgent and mysterious notes from a stranger that seems to know a lot about her life. Talk about how this is a great book for those who like solving mysteries and that little clues are scattered throughout the book, leading to a surprising but satisfying conclusion that wraps everything up nicely.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What does this book suggest about relationships and making friends? Do you think Miranda’s relationships are stronger by the end of the book?
  2. In what ways does the author’s use of A Wrinkle in Time enhance the storyline? If you haven’t read it, what do you think this book might have to do with Stead’s story?
  3. Do you believe in time travel? If so, where are all the time travelers?
  4. What did you think of the ending? Were you satisfied?

Reason for reading: This title kept popping up on a variety of lists. Whenever I searched for “best Newbery winners” lists, I consistently found this book, so I decided I should read it. The descriptions of the plot were very vague, so I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into other than that a lot of people seemed to love this book.

The Story of Mankind by Hendrik van Loon

  • Title: The Story of Mankind
  • Author: Hendrik van Loon
  • Publisher: H. Liveright
  • Year Published: 1921
  • ISBN:9780871401755
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 505
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: historical non-fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Medal Winner (first)

Author information: Hendrik van Loon was a journalist, historian and author who wrote over fifty books in his lifetime. The Story of Mankind was written at the behest of his publisher and van Loon completed it in two months. He won the first Newbery Medal for his efforts. Due to his journalistic work, he was banned from Nazi Germany when Hitler took power. More information about van Loon can be found here.

Reviews: Due to the age of the title, it was difficult to find reviews of the book. The Wall Street Journal and Kirkus both reviewed the ninth edition of this book, which published this past December (2013). Both reviewers comment upon the original work and its influence. Wall Street Journal sums up the purpose of Van Loon’s work thusly: “Van Loon was not pretending to be comprehensive but comprehensible, to give an account of human dynamism and progress so that young readers—he dedicated the book to his grandchildren—might share his enthusiasm for the intellectual wealth and ferment from which they spring. Adding gaiety to his already lively prose, again at the urging of his publisher, the author sprinkled black-and-white sketches throughout “The Story of Mankind” to give us glimpses of, among other things, Hannibal crossing the Alps, Luther translating the Bible and the Napoleonic army’s retreat from Moscow.”

Readers annotation: Everything you ever wanted to know about human history.

Summary: The premise of this book is that it is a concise history of mankind beginning with prehistoric times and ending with World War I, an event that had ended not long before this book was written. It goes through major milestones in Western Civilization, such as the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power and subsequent fall, and the invention of the motor, to name a few. The author says that he focuses mainly on events that had significant bearing on contemporary American, which is one reason why the bulk of the book focuses on European events.

Evaluation: Although there is much to commend in this book, it likely will not appeal to the average young reader of today. Van Loon’s writing style is personable and friendly, reminding the reader of a kindly grandfather who sits you down to tell you stories about times past, peppered with asides and comments about his own life and ideas. For the time period, the book is remarkably well balanced; when I began reading it I expected there to be glaring inaccuracies or outdated information and biases, which I did not find. Van Loon begins the book with the concept of evolution, and discusses religious leaders and sects without seeming to favor one over another, and devoting the same amount of time to Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, and Confucius. Of course, given the time period, there are moments of political incorrectness or unsettling thinking, but considering this book was written nearly 100 years ago, I expected it to be much worse. The author freely admits that he hasn’t given a comprehensive account of the history of mankind, having omitted the stories of Africa, Asia, and Australia almost entirely, but he justifies this decision by saying that his primary purpose was to highlight events that have strong bearing on the lives of American children at the time of the book’s publication. Certain subjects, such as the treatment of African Americans after the Civil War, are not discussed in any detail, but again, this book was published in 1921, when many significant civil rights events still had not taken place. He acknowledges his inability to properly discuss the effects World War I had on the world due to the fact that it was still too recent to understand the influence the war had, which is likely why his analysis of the events of the early 1900s lacks the same depth and conviction that his discussion of earlier time periods had. Overall, this is an enlightened and self-aware text that has wit and charm. However, both the length of the book and the density will likely dissuade modern readers from picking it up. Although each chapter is fairly short, the entire book is over 500 pages, and covers the whole history of civilization. It paints with broad strokes, so readers do not get a comprehensive and fulfilling look at any single time period, which can be discouraging. The narrative voice is genial but can also be dry, and this text may feel too much like a homework assignment to most readers. The artwork has a similar homespun charm to it, with each picture looking like something a relative might draw hastily on a napkin to punctuate a story, but these pictures can be confusing and the text is small and sometimes difficult to read. Excerpts from this book might be used in a classroom setting and receive a positive reaction, because the information in each chapter is easily digestible and can be taken out of context without suffering in quality, but any librarian or parent would find it challenging to find a modern audience for this book outside of scholars or those with a particular interest in Newbery Winners.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5  Van Loon is a delightful storyteller and creates a mostly impartial narrative that spans millenia. The scope of the book is impressive, but because of its broad and scattered nature, it often loses momentum.
  • Popularity: 1/5 Although it is easy to see why this may have been popular at the time of publication, modern readers will find this title to be dry and lacking suspense or any driving force to keep them engaged.
  • Appeal factors: history of the world, first Newbery winner ever.

Read-alikes: Because of the scope of this tome, no other children’s titles feel appropriate to suggest as read-alikes. Rather, for children who enjoyed learning about the history of civilization, I would recommend the DK Eyewitness books, which is a series with a variety of titles on different time periods in human history. These books are complete with stunning photographs sure to capture the reader’s attention and they are full of interesting and odd facts.

Book talk ideas: This would be a tough book to convince young people to read. The best approach would be to tell them if they want to learn about the entire world and the history of everything, this book would be a great place to start. Then, if they find a subject or historical time period that really excites them, the library would be happy to provide suggestions that meet their interests. Overall though, this one is a tough sell.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. If you had to add a historical event to van Loon’s book, what would it be and why?
  2. In which of the time periods discussed would you most want to live? Why?
  3. How does the artwork impact the telling of the story?

Reason for reading: I really wanted to read this book for this class because I felt that reading the very first Newbery winner would give me insight into the award and help me see how its evolved over time. Although it took me quite a while to make it through the entire book (about half the semester, interrupted frequently by other reads), I think it was well worth my time. After finishing the book, it seems that the award originally placed more emphasis on didactic value and honoring books that were “good” for children in some way–in this case, Van Loon presents an informative and understandable account of all of civilization. This contrasts with more recent winners, such as Flora and Ulysses and The One and Only Ivan. Although these books do have great messages and strong themes about friendship, they seem less directly educational and more accessible. Both of these recent winners also use innovative narration techniques, such as Flora‘s integration of comics into the storytelling or Ivan’s short paragraphs told from the perspective of a gorilla. In The Story of Mankind, Van Loon is very present and addresses his audience directly, making it more difficult for the reader to become absorbed in the story and feeling much more like a school lesson.

Additional relevant information: This book has been updated many times, both by Van Loon and by his son, to include more up-to-date information. The most recent version covers events all the way up to the 1990s. The version I read was the original, so I cannot speak to how these updates have affected the integrity of the original text.

Hoot by Carl Hiaasen

  • Title: Hoot
  • Author: Carl Hiaasen
  • Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
  • Year Published: 2002
  • ISBN: 0375821813
  • List Price: $15.95
  • Page Count: 304
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: realistic fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor Book; more here.

Author information: Carl Hiaasen has written books for readers of all ages, including five titles for children and his recently released YA debut novel. His website includes his biography, lists of titles for both youth and adults, and links and contact information. He also has a dedicated webpage for children, which includes videos, reading guides, and excerpts from his titles. In an interview with The Guardian, Hiaasen talks about his writing (mostly his adult works) and says of his creative choices: “My humour has always come from anger, but I have to make sure I don’t just get angry and jump on a soapbox”. This can be seen in his approach to environmental destruction and preservation in Hoot.

Reviews: School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist all gave this title favorable reviews. They agree that Hiaasen has created a quirky and memorable set of characters and that the book sends a positive message to young readers about the importance of preserving the environment. The reviews also mention Hiaasen’s humor; Booklist says “Hiaasen never lets the formula get in his way; the story is full of offbeat humor, buffoonish yet charming supporting characters, and genuinely touching scenes of children enjoying the wildness of nature”.

Readers annotation: How far would you go for a cause you believe in?

Summary: Roy is the new kid in his Florida town, but he’s used to it. His family moves around a lot because of his dad’s job, and Roy is not surprised when he immediately becomes the target for the school bully, Dana. When Dana is tormenting him on the bus, Roy notices a strange, barefoot boy running in the opposite direction of the school. He is determined to find out more about this strange boy, and his search leads him to his first Florida friend, tough girl Beatrice. The running boy, also known as Mullet Fingers, is Beatrice’s brother, and he has discovered that a pancake restaurant chain, Mother Paula’s, plans to construct a new building on a piece of land that an endangered owl species lives on. Mullet Fingers uses a series of tricks, such as dumping alligators in the porta-potties and uprooting construction stakes, in order to stall construction, but this turns out to be a dangerous game. After he gets bitten by guard dogs, Roy decides to join the fight to protect the owls. He stages a protest on the day Mother Paula’s planned to break ground, and, with the help of Beatrice, Mullet Fingers, his classmates, and his family, he is able to save the owls.

Evaluation: Hoot is a charming, funny book with a positive message for young readers. From the first chapter of the novel, Hiaasen builds suspense and creates mysteries that the reader wants to solve as badly as the protagonist, such as the identity of the strange running boy and the culprit and motivation behind the pranks at the lot where the new Mother Paula’s restaurant will be built. These questions keep the reader’s attention, drawing him into an environmental mystery and advocacy tale. Interspersed with the major plotline is the story of how Roy deals with being the new kid at school and his interactions with bullies and his struggles to make friends. This will resonate with any child who has ever felt left out or lonely, and makes Roy a sympathetic protagonist. The ending is predictable–it’s obvious from early on in the novel that Roy and his friends will succeed in saving the owl habitat and that the evil Mother Paula corporation will lose their battle to build a new pancake house, but there is enough humor and heart in the novel that the reader forgives Hiaasen for the obvious ending. This novel, more than most written for this age group, does a great job of asking children to examine how they treat their environment and what steps they can take to protect the world around them.

Rating and appeal factors:

  1. Quality: 4/5  This book is funny and has a strong narrative voice, making it an easy and entertaining read. The plot is obvious and most readers will be able to figure out the ending quickly, but the book is full of enough twists and moments of suspense to redeem the book’s obvious ending.
  • Popularity: 4/5 This would be a good pick for reluctant readers. The plot moves quickly, Roy is a likeable protagonist, humor abounds in Roy’s interactions with Dana, the bully, as well as the hi-jinks that occur at the construction site, and it has a satisfying conclusion with a positive message.
  • Appeal factors: environmental activism and preservation, owls, making friends, happy ending.

Read-alikes: 

  1. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly, could be a good suggestion for readers who liked the environmental aspect of this book. The main character, Callie, learns about the natural world in her own backyard with her grandfather, a naturalist, who she develops a close relationship with.
  2. For readers who enjoyed the mystery element of Hoot, Barbara Ware Holmes’ Following Fake Man may be a good fit. Set in a similarly scenic part of the United States, Holmes’ novel also shares themes of friendship and self-discovery with Hoot, as the protagonist tries to learn more about his dead father.

Book talk ideas: Start the book talk by giving teasers about the plot, without revealing too much. Talk about different engaging aspects of the story, such as the mysterious running boy, frequent and unexplained destruction at a construction site, and a vicious bully named Dana. Talk about the fact that all of these seemingly different elements come together in an ecological suspense novel that will make readers think about their own lives and actions.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What does Roy’s relationship with his parents look like? How does this differ from Beatrice’s relationship with her father and stepmother? What about Dana and his parents?
  2. When the novel starts, Roy feels like he doesn’t belong in Florida. How and why does this change by the end of the book?
  3. How does Roy deal with Dana, the bully? What are other ways he could have approached the situation?
  4. What are ways you can make a positive difference in your environment?

Reason for reading: This is another book that I read solely because I liked the cover. I saw it on a few lists of Newbery books and liked the simplicity, and dare I say, cuteness of the cover. I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it, as realistic fiction usually isn’t my favorite genre in youth literature, but I thought it was a good opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and read something different.

 

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz

  • Title: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village
  • Author: Laura Amy Schlitz
  • Illustrator: Robert Byrd
  • Publisher: Candlewick Press
  • Year Published: 2007
  • ISBN: 0763615781
  • List Price: $19.99
  • Page Count: 96
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Medal Winner; more here.

Author information: Laura Amy Schlitz is a librarian, playwright, and children’s book author. She does not have a website, but her publisher, Candlewick Press, has a short biography of her. Schlitz has been a school librarian for over thirteen years and cites the children she works with as a source of inspiration for her. She also spent time touring the country with a children’s theater company. Publisher’s Weekly did an interview with Schlitz after the release of her Newbery Honor book, Splendors and Glooms. In the interview, PW asks her many questions about her new book as well as questions about her writing habits. She admits that she sometimes finds it difficult to sit down and focus on writing, but she has a 30 minute trick to keep herself motivated. She forces herself to write, with no distractions, for a full half hour. After that, if she is uninspired she allows herself to stop, but if she’s in a groove she will keep writing. Schlitz also says that she would never quit her school librarian job to write full time because the children there are her inspiration and give her energy.

Reviews: Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist all gave this title starred reviews. All of these reviews comment upon the fact that each character has a distinct voice that separates him or her from the others while still maintaining a cohesive flow to the book. They also comment on how the artwork enhances the monologues and the fact that the historical asides and pages of background information are lively and unobtrusive. Booklist says, “although often the characters’ specific concerns are very much of their time, their outlooks and emotional states will be familiar to young people today”.

Readers annotation: Ever wondered what life was like in a medieval village?

Summary: This book depicts what life was like in medieval times through the use of 23 unique characters, all with a monologue or two person scene devoted to their perspective. These characters range from nobility, such as Isobel, the Lord’s daughter who is angry and hurt by the fact that one of the village children threw mud at her, to the lower classes, such as Giles, a beggar boy who swindles locals with his father. Other voices include those of a glassblower’s apprentice, a varlet’s child, the Lord’s nephew, and the money-lender’s son, among others. Each of these characters offers a look at life during the medieval period from their unique points of view, which sometimes overlap or contradict each other. Interspersed with these stories is background information about the time, such as the experience of Jews in medieval society or the purpose of pilgrimages.

Evaluation: This book has left me more conflicted than any others I’ve read for this class so far. The style can initially be daunting; in order to preserve historical accuracy, all of the characters speak in a manner similar to Shakespearean English, which takes a few monologues to get used to. Also, most of these monologues are written in verse, which can also discourage a youth reader. However, this book is wholly charming once the reader adjusts to the format. Each character has a unique place in this constructed medieval town, and each faces his or her own trials due to his or her status. Some of these tales overlap in ways that allow the reader to get multiple perspectives, such as when the Lord’s daughter laments the fact that a stranger threw mud at her, and the following monologue is told from the perspective of the downtrodden, hopeless girl who did the throwing. The historical back story that is given after some of these scenes enriches the reader’s understanding of the time period, and the medieval-style artwork also helps set the tone of the book and make it feel authentic. It is easy to imagine how this book could be used in a classroom setting, and I believe that students would really enjoy acting out different roles and playing them for an audience of their peers or parents. Although I think children would enjoy it in this context, I don’t believe that many children would choose to read this book for pleasure, especially considering the abundance of easier to read, faster-paced titles that are available.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  This book has a clever format that helps the reader fully imagine what life would be like for different members of a medieval community. The characters are, on the whole, likable and sympathetic, the artwork is charming, and the background information is useful and interesting.
  • Popularity: 2/5  As mentioned above, it is difficult to imagine a child choosing this book for pleasure reading. However, if this title were used in a classroom setting, children would enjoy the fresh approach to the topic and their ability to become involved in the story by acting out one or more of the scenes within the book.
  • Appeal factors: theater and drama, historical fiction, multiple perspectives.

Read-alikes: 

  1. This book is very difficult to select read-alikes for due to its unique nature. For readers who enjoyed learning about the different occupations and lifestyles of the different characters, Archers, Alchemists, and 98 Other Medieval Jobs You Might Have Loved or Loathed by Priscilla Galloway could be a good fit. This book looks at a variety of different professions during this time period and what each of them would have entailed.

Book talk ideas: Start by telling readers that this is an unusual book; it shows the reader what life was like in medieval Europe through monologues and scenes from 23 different characters. Because the strength is in the voices of each of these characters, perhaps read a short monologue from the book to illustrate the dynamic voices that appear. Tell readers that this book provides great insight into a time period where people lived very different lives than we do now, and let them know that the book is full of interesting and weird facts about the times that are interspersed throughout the scenes.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. If you had to read one of these monologues or be one of these characters, which would you choose?
  2. What was the most surprising thing you learned about medieval times from this book?
  3. Which character do you think had the best life? The worst? Why?

Reason for reading: One of my co-workers recommended this book to me when I mentioned that I was taking this class. She told me it was a series of monologues and plays set in a medieval context, and that the author also wrote Splendors and Glooms, which I loved. Although I wasn’t sure how I felt about the format of the book at first, I decided to try it out.

Additional relevant information: Schlitz decided to write this book because The Park School, where she works as a children’s librarian, was studying the time period and wanted to do some sort of a performance, but nobody wanted a small part, which inevitably happens with traditional plays. To remedy this situation. Schlitz decided to create a series of monologues and two person scenes that they could perform, that way each student would get an opportunity to be center stage and the star of the show.

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

  • Title: Inside Out and Back Again
  • Author: Thanhha Lai
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Year Published: 2011
  • ISBN: 0061962783
  • List Price: $16.99
  • Page Count: 272
  • Age Range: 8-12
  • Genre: historical fiction
  • Award(s): National Book Award for Young People’s Literature; Newbery Honor

Author information: Inside Out and Back Again is Thanhha Lai’s first novel. She does not seem to have a website, but it is possible to find information about her on the HarperCollins website. This includes a short biography, her educational experience, hobbies and interests, and a link to information about her book. The National Book Foundation has an interview with Lai on their website, in which she talks about the power of language in terms of self-expression and her hope that her novel will inspire others who have gone through similar experiences to tell their stories.

Reviews: This book received starred reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly. These reviews agree that the format of the novel is innovative and is one of its greatest strengths, and they agree that Lai’s portrayal of Hà is moving and provides an honest depiction of a young Vietnamese immigrant’s experience. Three of these reviews cite the humorous elements of Hà’s voice and how this provides a strong balance to the more serious and darker tones of the novel.

Readers annotation: Growing up in Vietnam during the war may be tough, but Hà thinks that living in Alabama might be worse.

Summary: Hà has spent her entire childhood in Saigon, but as the war increasingly threatens her family’s safety and way of life, her mother decides that they need to escape. Hà’s father, a Navy sailor, has been missing in action for years, but one of his friends tells her family about a ship that will be leaving Saigon and helps them flee Vietnam on it. After a long and uncomfortable voyage, their ship is rescued and Hà’s family decides to move to America. Their sponsor, a Christian Alabama man, lets them live with him and Hà and her brothers start trying to integrate into life in the South. Hà is not used to being “stupid” and not able to keep up in class, and many of the other students tease or threaten her. Hà eventually finds an ally in her neighbor Miss Washington, who tutors her and helps ease her transition into American life, and the novel ends with Hà and her family hopeful about the future and ready to build a new life in America.

Evaluation: The format of this book is the most obvious strength of the novel.  Hà’s story is told as a series of poems that are roughly in chronological order, and these poems are beautiful when taken individually, but they become a tour de force when combined. At first, the format can seem daunting, and the reader may not think that a strong narrative will be able to form with such a limited number of words, but the power of Hà’s voice and story transcend the format of the narrative and create a compelling plot. Hà is a sympathetic and relatable character, and readers will root for her success as well as feel badly for her troubles. The story also addresses themes that any child (or adult) can relate to, such as feeling like an outcast, being bullied, and being nostalgic for the past. Hà is a fully developed character who is portrayed with honesty; she is shown as being strong and smart and hardworking, but also as being conflicted and occasionally cruel and a bully herself. Aside from having a compelling plot and being written as heartbreakingly gorgeous poetry, this novel also provides a much-needed look at an immigrant’s difficulties adapting to life in a America, and does so with a fresh and unforgettable perspective.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 5/5  This novel is unique both in its subject matter and the format with which it tells Hà’s story. Readers will find themselves lingering over each short poem as well as absorbed in the larger narrative.
  • Popularity: 3/5  Although the poetry format of this novel is highly accessible and arguably easier for reluctant readers than a novel based in prose, some readers may be turned off at the sight of poetry and not want to read it due to its format. Those who do, however, will find Hà to be a compelling and likable character and will relate to her story, no matter what their personal experience with immigration or bullying may be. The novel encourages readers to think about larger themes of kindness, acceptance, and courage and how they may relate to their own lives.
  • Appeal factors: immigrant experience, poetry, strong female protagonist, humor, hopeful ending.

Read-alikes: 

  1. R. J. Palacio’s Wonder could be a good fit for those who liked reading about a child who was outcast from her peers because she was different. Like Hà, August is different, although his difference is not his race, but rather a physical deformity. He’s teased in school and doesn’t fit in, but, as with Hà’s story, this novel ends on a positive and hopeful note.
  2. For readers who want more on the subject of the immigration experience, The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan could be a good fit. Although this book features a Polish girl who immigrates to England rather than a Vietnamese girl who immigrates to America, both protagonists have to struggle with alienation, adjusting to a new life, and absent fathers.

Book talk ideas: The major objection readers may have to picking up this book is also it’s greatest strength: the poetry. In order to dispell the myth that a book written in verse is inaccessible, read one or two of the stronger (spoiler-free) poems as a way to introduce the novel. Then discuss the plot, and how Hà is a girl who has had to leave the life she knew for an entirely different country, one in which she is teased, made to feel stupid, and does not fit in. Highlight the feelings that such a situation would raise, such as loneliness, fear, and nostalgia for an old life. Ask if anybody can relate to those feelings. Possibly end with another poem from the book.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What could the papaya tree represent? Why is Hà so obsessed with this fruit and its tree?
  2. Hà has difficulty adjusting from being a top student to one who struggles in school. How does this adjustment affect her? How would you feel if you were at an academic disadvantage like Hà?
  3. Although never seen in the story, Hà’s father is a presence throughout the narrative. How does Hà’s father influence/haunt each character?

Reason for reading: This book was on quite a few lists of Newbery honors and best books for children lists, and it looked like it could be interesting. I read the synopsis and it sounded unique, and I’ve never read an immigration story about leaving Vietnam during the war. I actually missed the fact that the narrative was a series of poems and I’m glad I did because I may not have checked it out if I knew. I think that may be the toughest part about selling this book to young readers–there is a stigma associated with poetry that makes readers feel like it is less accessible than prose and they may be reluctant to give this title a chance.

Additional relevant information: Inside Out and Back Again is semi-autobiographical and in part based on Lai’s own experiences as an immigrant. Her sponsor also lived in Alabama, and took on Lai’s entire family, ten people in all. It took Lai ten years to learn grammatically correct English.