Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Two Pleasures Struggling Readers Miss Out On

Before school began, I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Suzanne Collins at Oblong Books and Music in Millerton, NY. Oblong is an amazing little indie store, but it is off the beaten path, so I was surprised a celebrity like Ms. Collins was coming to our small town! The event was exciting with a huge line snaking around the store before the event, gift bags from Scholastic, and the anticipation of seeing the beloved author of the Hunger Games series.

When we all packed into the top floor (as many people as it could hold!), we were treated with an incredible reading. First was an excerpt from Catching Fire so we could "get used to the Futuristic Appalachian accent" Collins uses to portray Katniss Everdeen. (It was a pretty cool accent!). Then she read from the first chapter of Mockingjay. Before she started reading I was thinking about a) how uncomfortable I was squished in a lump on the hardwood floor and b) how gosh darn cool it was that Suzanne Collins has the same shoes I do! Then the book reading began and the story of Katniss, District 12, and Panem washed over me like seeing an old friend. I was sitting not 4 feet from the same woman whose books I have read multiple times (the most recent rereading was of the first two books right before the third was released)!

This was not the first time I had the opportunity to meet an author. Working in bookstores throughout college and having attended a number of author functions, I have had the opportunity to meet a number of wonderful authors- some famous, some not. But there is always something exhilarating about the experience- even when the author is nothing like what you expected form their book! This got me thinking. My students are struggling readers. They are dyslexic, and reading has always been elusive for them- this chore adults keep telling them they should like and be good at. My students struggle to get through a single book, let alone to reread it. And they seem so relieved to finish a book that meeting the author is the furthest thing from their minds. It almost seems, both comically and sadly, that they see the author as purposely torturing them with those pages.

Rereading can be such an incredible experience. The first book I reread was Ann M. Martin's 10 Kids no Pets when I was in elementary school. I LOVED this book! Since then, rereading has been comforting for me- like a visit from an old friend or a favorite aunt or uncle- something that doesn't happen often, but when you see them again, it is as though no time has passed. With Suzanne Collins' books, rereading was just as exciting as the first time I plowed through those pages. For my students, however, they are just happy to finish any book. Rarely do they have the opportunity to love a book enough to pick it up again. This realization made me so sad!

How do we get children to revisit stories they have already read? How do we get them excited to meet an author, especially to hear the author read from a book they loved? I think the most crucial part in making book lovers out of struggling readers is finding the perfect book for that student. Yesterday was my first day of classes for the school year. I discovered one of my students has the same love for dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature as I do. We barely got his homework down because we talked about doomsday stories for almost the entire period! It was beautiful! Making a connection with a student like that is the very reason I became a teacher. And throw the books into the mix and you have just made my year! Enthusiasm is contagious. When we are excited about books, our students become excited. If we know our students, know the books, and are excited about them, cultivated a love for reading just might happen, struggling reader or not!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Back on the Air

Thank goodness for Jess, is all I can say. She has been reading and writing like a house on fire...all summer! And the truth is, I don't even have anything to say today. Much like in my other blog, I have developed a nasty case of writer's block. I have read many books this summer and written about none of them; the thought of sitting down to relive them in some book reviews feels like an insurmountable task. I don't know if I will do it at all or if I will start fresh. In the meantime, I need to write something so I can get over my pesky affliction and just start writing.

Instead of a review today, I will leave you with this, my summer reading list. Even though the tutors at The Kildonan School make individualized book lists for our students, I like to have a list on hand...it can help guide the tutors, it is ready to go if a student (or parent) loses the list we sent home, and it helps me narrow down the selections I will purchase for the school. Maybe, you'll it useful as we all go back to school. I know I will refer to it when I set out to pick reading books for my students. Forgive me...I hope I'll be back soon!

Students with Reading Skills 5th Grade and Below:

The 39 Clues Series (various authors; various reading levels)
Colfer, Eoin - Half-Moon Investigations (GE=3.3)
Creech, Sharon - The Unfinished Angel (and others by this author)
DiCamillo, Kate - The Magician’s Elephant (GE=5.0)
Fitzpatrick, Rebecca - Hush, Hush (GE=4.5)
Fredericks, Mariah - Head Games (GE=2.5)
Giff, Patricia Reilly - Wild Girl (GE=4.0) (and others by this author)
Gatekeepers series (various authors; varying reading levels)
Horvath, Polly - My One Hundred Adventures (GE=4.8)
Lockhart, E. - The Treasure Map of Boys
Mead, Richelle - Vampire Academy (GE=3.7)
Morgan, Clay - The Boy Who Spoke Dog (GE=3.5)
Nimmo, Jenny - Charlie Bone series
Prue, Sally - Playing With Fire (GE=3.5)
Shearer, Alex - Canned (GE=3.5)
Stiefvater, Maggie - Shiver (GE=4.5); Lament: The Faerie Queen’s Deception

Students with Reading Skills between 5th and 7th Grade:

The 39 Clues Series (various authors; various reading levels)
Black, Holly and Cecil Castellucci (eds.) - Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd
Collins, Suzanne - Catching Fire (GE=5.4) (and others by this author)
Dessen, Sarah - Along for the Ride (and others by this author)
Fleming, Candace - The Great and Only Barnum
Hoose, Phillip - Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
Kelly, Jacqueline - The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
Lin, Grace - Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
Madigan, L.K. - Flash Burnout
Myers, Walter Dean - Riot (GE=5.3)
Partridge, Elizabeth - Marching for Freedom
Philbrick, Rodman - The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg
Sonnenblick, Jordan - After Ever After (and others by this author)
Stead, Rebecca - When You Reach Me
Stone, Tanya Lee - Almost Astronauts
Williams-Garcia, Rita - Jumped
Yancey, Rick - Monstrumologist
Yep, Laurence - City of Fire

Students with Reading Levels 7 and Above:

B., David - Epileptic
Barnes, John - Tales of the Madman Underground
Bradley, Alan - The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Bray, Libba - Going Bovine
Draper, Sharon - Just Another Hero
Fisher, Catherine - Incarceron
Garcia, Kami and Margaret Stohl - Beautiful Creatures
Griffin, Paul - The Orange Houses
Heiligman, Deborah - Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith
Hoffman, Beth - Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt
Jinks, Catherine - The Reformed Vampire Support Group
LaCour, Nina - Hold Still
Larsson, Stieg - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (and others in this series)
Lieb, Josh - I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your 

Ockler, Sarah - Twenty Boy Summer
Peters, Julie Anne - By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead
Rapp, Adam - Punkzilla
Ryan, Carrie - The Forest of Hands and Teeth (and others in this series)
Taylor, Laini - Lips Touch: Three Times (GE=8.4)
Zarr, Sara - Once Was Lost; Story of a Girl

Additional Selections for Outstanding Readers: The Alex Awards:

The Alex Awards are given by the American Library Association to ten books
written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through
18. The winning titles are selected from the previous year's publishing.

Carriger, Gail - Soulless: An Alexia Tarabotti Novel
Currie, Ron, Jr. - Everything Matters
Finkel, David - The Good Soldiers
Grossman, Lev - The Magicians
Kamkwamba, William and Bryan Mealer - The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind
Rock, Peter - My Abandonment
Rosoff, Meg - The Bride’s Farewell
Small, David - Stitches: A Memoir
Welch, Diana and Liz Welch et. al. - The Kids Are All Right: A Memoir
Wilson, Kevin - Tunneling to the Center of the Earth

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Most Mature Book in the Series!

Only the Good Spy Young (Gallagher Girls)
It is so fun to watch a series grow up with each and every installment. The Gallagher Girls series has done just that. From a silly tween series to an engaging young adult series with real characters and real problems, Only the Good Spy Young is a wonderful transformation to be a part of!

In the third book, Cammie realized it wasn't Macey McHenry the rouge spies were trying to kidnap, it was her. With this realization comes the terrifying reality that her favorite teacher, Joe Solomon, might be part of the organization that is trying to take Cammie. Now that Solomon is on the run, a new Covert Ops teacher is assigned to the Academy, but he seems only concerned with getting into Sublevel Two and what the girls know about Solomon. The most important teacher with the most important class, but he doesn't teach them anything- only presses them for any information they might be hiding. When it comes out that Solomon was somehow involved in her father's disappearance, Cammie is determined to get to the bottom of what Solomon's involvement was in her father's disappearance and her kidnapping attempts. The only way she can really get the information, however, is by learning more about her friend Zach from Blackthorne and with the help of her faithful friends, Bex, Liz, and Macey.

This fourth book was much more serious. The girls are now in real danger at the hand of the secret society that is after Cammie. The fact that the rouge spies shot and nearly killed her Aunt Abby at the end of the third book makes this story line all the more serious. And with more serious danger comes a more thrilling story. The nicest part of this series is the fact that the books are short, and won't overwhelm a reluctant reader, but they will grow with the reader, pushing them to more mature stories and reading levels. This story ends with a little bit of a cliffhanger, so I hope Ally Carter pulls another Gallagher Girls story out soon!

Mockingjays on the Fence

Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games)
I want to premise this review with a few things. First, Hunger Games is one of my favorite books. Catching Fire was just as good, if not better! Finally, Suzanne Collins must have made some kind of Faustian deal to be such an amazing writer, or at least have some special powers. When the third and final installment was released on Tuesday, I was thrilled! I have been waiting for this book for over a year! But when it came to actually reading the book, I knew something was wrong. Earlier in the week I had reread the first two books and found them just as captivating and engrossing as the first time I had read them. But Mockingjay? I kept putting it down! I had no problem setting it aside to do something else... This didn't bode well.

Mockingjay picks up shortly after Catching Fire left off with the rebels from District 13 saving Katniss, Finnick, and Beetee from the arena in the 75th Hunger Games. Her family and Gale and his family have gotten out of District 12 with a handful of other refugees, but most of the people and all of the district (except Victor's Village) has been bombed and burned to the ground. Now Katniss is living with the other refugees and District 13 in their underground facilities that are basically a subterranean city. But Katniss isn't really "living" in the the realest sense. Mostly she hides, shirks her duties, and avoids all contact with people if possible.

When President Coin, the leader of District 13, wants Katniss to agree to be the Mockingjay, a symbol of freedom and courage for the rebel movement against the Capitol, Katniss refuses at first. When she sees Peeta, who was captured by the Capitol, on TV and he has clearly been beaten and tortured, she agrees to be the Mockingjay with a few conditions- one being the immunity of all Hunger Games victors, including Peeta. District 13 then primps and preens Katniss into the Mockingjay and parades her through multiple propaganda videos (called propos) to keep the war effort motivated. Of course, this involves keeping her mostly out of danger, with the exception of a few surprise attacks by the Capitol.

*Spoiler Alert*
Once the Districts have been won over by the rebels, however, the Capitol is the final battle to be won. Coin creates a group of "Celebrity" soldiers that includes Katniss, Finnick, Gale, and Peeta, among others, and she sends them off to the Capitol. The carefully planned mission, however, goes horribly awry when the "pods" (easily triggered defensive weapons that carry everything from black tar waves, to shrapnel bombs, to tracker jackers) are too numerous to avoid. As the Capitol bombs their previous hiding place and assumes they are all dead, the group makes its way to President Snow's mansion on an assassination mission. It doesn't go as planned, however, and Katniss's greatest fears are quickly becoming realities.

I wanted to love this book so much. In fact, it wouldn't have taken much for me to absolutely love it as much as the first two books in the series, but for some reason it fell short for me. It wasn't a huge disappointment, just not as amazing as the first two books were. I would love to hear how others felt about it, because I am worried maybe my own expectations negatively affected my opinion. The truth is I hated Katniss in this book. She was weak and damaged. Ok, I can accept that. But she was also whiny, petulant, and refused to take responsibility for the revolution she played a part in. I wanted so much more out of this older, more mature, and wiser Katniss. I didn't want her to hide in laundry rooms and broom closets for naps throughout the whole book. Even when she gets Peeta back (in bad shape, but away from the Capitol at least), she is still moping about. She does go on about killing Snow, but it almost seems like an afterthought.

Another complaint was the rushed feeling of the deaths of major characters. I will admit, I was reading quickly at some points, but I would read a paragraph and a character would be gone with very little explanation or time to process. Just GONE! Now, I read quite a few apocalyptic stories and dystopias, and I am not surprised when important characters are killed. That is, after all, the nature of the genre. But why wouldn't you give those characters the respect they are due?

I did like the guilt Katniss displayed at how many lives were at stake because of the revolution she was involved in. Every rebel life, every innocent civilian life, and every district that was affected by the war is like one more thing peeling away at Katniss's sanity. I know she was a reluctant face of this war, but is important to see her pain for each and every death her involvement is even loosely responsible for. This humility was one of the most endearing qualities in Katniss, from her first time in the arena with the loss of Rue and even Thresh, all the way to the loss of her friends, like Cinna, and the people of her district. Unfortunately, this guilt seemed to overwhelm the determined Katniss we saw in the first two books- the Katniss who grieved for those losses but it didn't make her stop surviving the most hopeless of situations.

On a whole, this was a decent ending to the series. It isn't what I expected, but that is a good quality in a book. There were some things I didn't like, but they didn't ruin the whole thing for me. I loved this series as a whole, and can't wait to give it to my new students this school year. I am interested to hear what others though, though!

High School vs. The Gods

Oh. My. Gods.
Now that Percy Jackson's has brought the Greek Gods to the forefront, Oh. My. Gods., by Tera Lynn Childs, breaks out with a fun tale about kids who are direct descendants of the Gods. The Gods themselves don't really make an appearance, but their mythology and influence are all over this cute tale.

Phoebe Castro is a cross country runner whose skill is about to earn her a full scholarship to USC. Other than running and her two closest friends, Phoebe doesn't worry about much else in the world. When her mother returns from Greece for a family reunion for her husband who died years earlier, she has some news that will change Phoebe's life forever: she is engaged and they are all moving to a tiny island in Greece that is only accessible by private boat! Phoebe is devastated to leave California, but doesn't have much choice as the wedding and move are only weeks away.

When she gets to Serfopoula, her new stepfather tells her there is more to this island than just serious isolation. The single school on the island is a school for direct descendants of the Gods, like her stepfather. At first Phoebe thinks he and her mother have lost their minds, but when her new evil stepsister materializes on the boat as they approach the island, she has no choice but to accept the news. Now Phoebe is not only the new girl, she is the new girl AND the only non-descendant at the whole school. When she gets caught in the middle of a love triangle that involves her scheming stepsister and an evil cheerleader-type, she finds herself falling for the hunk of the school- the very same guy her friends warn her to stay way from. Now she has to figure out whether he really is a nice guy, or really a jerk, work her butt off to make the cross-country team that is full of descendants of Gods, and get to the truth about her father and his mysterious death. While it isn't the senior year Phoebe originally wanted, it is one she can't deny has changed her life!

This is a fun, goofy story that gives you the typical high school dramas laced with Greek mythology- very interesting. The mythology is only superficial, though, and is not as comprehensive as in Percy Jackson. I liked that Phoebe is an athlete and determined to make the team despite being out of her league as the only person without God qualities and talents. She is a strong main character, but she can throw some serious temper tantrums when she wants to!

The writing level and content would probably be appropriate for a 6-10 grade girl, depending on her skill level. I don't imagine this book would appeal to many boys (the cover alone would deter them). It would be a great story for a socialite girl who wants to read about social situations. There is a decent amount of boy meets girl going on that would appeal to that type of reader. There is also a sequel out I plan to pick up and save for a time when I need some cute, simple, uncomplicated reading!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Not Your Average Vampire Story

Blue Bloods (Blue Bloods, Book 1)
For some reason I have this annoying habit of shunning bestsellers, ignoring the fact that they are probably bestsellers for a reason. I have seen the Blue Bloods series, by Melissa De la Cruz, floating around for a while now, and like the other post-Twilight vampires, I have ignored it. At the urging of another YA-obsessed cousin, I gave in and bought the first one. I was fully prepared to dislike this series, but just like what happened with Harry Potter and Twilight once I finally forced myself to read them, I was kicking myself for not starting this series sooner!!

In posh Manhattan, an elite private school called Duchesne has more secrets than you would imagine of the children of the rich, famous, and stylish. Schuyler is an outcast at Duchesne, along with her only two friends, Dylan and Oliver. Kids like Mimi and Jack Force rule the school in a way Schuyler can't even imagine. When one of Mimi's "friends" (followers) is found dead in a members-only night club, things begin to change around Manhattan. Despite the official story that her friend overdosed, the fact that she was completely drained of all her blood brings a secret society to the forefront: The Blue Bloods.

The 400 Blue Bloods are a constantly "reincarnating" (it isn't really reincarnating, but that is the simplest explanation) after they have lived an Expression for 100 years. There are a few Blue Bloods who have lived their immortality in one expression, but that must be approved by the rest of the Blue Bloods. But the most important rules of the 400 involve their lives as vampires- and how they do not abuse or kill Red Bloods (we measly non-vampires). When a new threat is attacking Blue Bloods and draining them of every drop of blood, thereby ending their souls, lives, and immortality, The Committee decides to induct the new Blue Bloods early. Much to Schuyler's surprise, she is invited. With her new Blue Blood secret and status revealed, she learns more about her friends and family than she could ever imagine. After she is attacked, she, Oliver, and fellow Blue Blood Bliss are determined to find out what is killing Blue Bloods when they are most vulnerable- as teenagers.

This is an exciting series that is a mix of Gossip Girl and Twilight. You have the posh Manhattan backdrop full of name-dropping and labels galore. Every school day begins with a detailed description of the Minolos, the Gucci, and the Dolce. The Vampires are the tame variety we got with Twilight, although they do have deep dark secrets. The interesting part of this setting is how De la Cruz used the Blue Bloods to explain much of the fashion industry in NYC, from the top designers to the models on billboards, and almost all the important socialites. How very interesting to use blood sucking to explain these two groups of people!

The writing is about on par with Twilight. It isn't too juvenile, but not too mature either. The story is very tame; there isn't much by way of sex or violence, although there is a great deal of club hopping. Since alcohol doesn't affect the Blue Bloods, it is a constant presence, although not the focus. Blue Bloods is a great series for any Twilight fan who needs something else now that meyer is finished with that series. However, it is also a great series for the Twilight skeptics! This kids who hate the popular series' just for their popularity's sake would probably enjoy this story. With all the high fashion, this is also a great story for the more "cosmopolitan" of kids! I know I am greedily devouring the second installment!

Fun Series Gets More Serious

Don't Judge a Girl by her Cover (Gallagher Girls)
Back with the third installment of the Gallagher Girls series, Ally Carter lets the series grow and mature with her readers. Don't Judge a Girl by Her Cover might still have a silly title, but this story just got a lot more grown up!

As Cammie and her friends, Bex, Liz and Macey, begin the next semester at the Gallagher Academy, it becomes very clear this year is going to be like no other. When Cammie goes to visit Macey on her father's campaign trail, they are attacked on the roof of campaign headquarters. Cammie, in full spy mode, manages to save the son of Macey's dad's running mate, but these spies are good. Since she clearly can't fight them off after Macey is injured, she spots a vent and stuffs Macey down before quickly following.

It becomes quickly obvious that the Gallagher Academy has more than just Covert Ops training to worry about this year. When Cammie's Aunt Abby is assigned to Macey as her Secret Service detail, the girls learn a lot more about Cammie's family, but have no idea who is after Macey. Now they must protect their friend while still searching for the really dangerous spies that are after her.

This installment of the series got much more mature than the first two. The girls are still going to school and dealing with typical teenage girl stuff, but the threat against Macey is very real. This time, they won't just fail their Covert Ops assignment if they mess up, they will lose their best friend to a very real danger. It makes the story much more high stakes, and you get to see the girls in real action. More information about her father also makes Cammie's character a lot more real and multidimensional. The reading level still remains pleasantly low while the story is still fun, making this a great series for a low-skilled older student. This series can grow with the student as the story gets more sophisticated!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Great Message, Awkward Execution

Return to Sender
With all the controversy in this country about borders, immigration, illegal aliens, and in particular Mexican immigrants, this book couldn't have come at a better time. Our students are sitting in classrooms with students who are learning English as a second language while simultaneously trying to learn the same content as their peers. Our neighbors are using labor from illegal aliens to keep their farms and businesses afloat. And our government is currently in a federal vs. state war regarding the rights of non-citizens. I would say the YA genre is well overdue for a book to examine both sides of this controversy.

The story begins with a young boy named Tyler who has grown up on the farm that has been run by his family for generations. His older brother and sister are uninterested in the back-breaking work it takes to keep the farm going, but Tyler dreams of running the farm one day, even though he is only eleven. When his grandfather dies suddenly and his father is badly injured in a farm accident, the family resorts to the last hope to keep their farm going: Mexican labor. They hire three men to help with the farm work and live on the farm, but they are surprised to find the men arrive with three young girls. Maria, Luby, and Ofie are with their father, but no one knows where their mother is. She left to return to Mexico almost a year ago to see her dying mother, but after calling Maria's father to let them know she was returning, she disappeared and they haven't heard from her since.

Tyler is having a difficult time with the new residents of the farm. He believes in his country and the constitution and hiring illegal immigrants is breaking the law. Therefore, he is very upset by the turn of events on the farm, and he is torn because he knows this is the only way to save the farm. When the girls are enrolled in his school and Maria is in his class, he gets to know them as more than just illegal immigrants, and gets to know the crueler side of his peers. While Ofie and Luby are US citizens and born in the states, Maria was born in Mexico, and the kids at school don't let her forget it. Slowly, though, the two families grow to care for one another deeply. The girls think of Tyler's grandmother as their own grandmother, Tyler's family invites Maria's family over for dinners and holidays, and all are devastated when Maria's uncle Felipe is picked up by immigration. Now the family must find a way to avoid immigration, run the farm with less men, and find out the truth of where Maria's mother is.

This is a bitter sweet story that shows both sides of a controversial situation. Chapters alternate between Tyler's story told in prose and Maria's story in the form of letters to her mother, the President of the US, and Guadalupe. It makes the reader understand that immigration is more than just a numbers and borders game- real people are the focus and their lives are in the balance. Not to mention, these people are hard workers who just want to support their families, and they have become a strong support system for businesses that couldn't continue without their help.

I found the message to be well thought out, but the writing was just plain awkward. I would have been fine if only Maria's story was choppier, but Tyler's was too. And the beginning where Tyler is concerned with the legality and moral aspects of the new farm workers, it is simply overdone. It sounded like a robot: "Illegal immigrants are illegal, the constitution is the bestest thing in the world, we follow the constitution in the bestest country in the world, therefore we don't break the law, and illegal immigrants are breaking the law, so they are all bad. Very bad." It was simply silly. It made it hard for me to take the book seriously for a while. Tyler's opinions clearly changed as the story continued, but it was almost as if Maria's family were real aliens from outer space and no one knew about them until now. This part I find hard to believe. It is set in 2005, and I find it hard to believe a family in VT would have no contact with a Mexican family until then. This part of the book was much less realistic and much more contrived.

The book is still an interesting one, and might be best as a school assignment with teacher guidance, or one read with a parent. I don't see many kids picking this story up and sticking with it long enough to get to the important messages. The writing is hard to peg because it is so awkward, but not necessarily written at a lower reading level. The topic is a great one for kids and adults at all ages. It is also an interesting choice for a student learning Spanish, because Spanish words, phrases, and sentences are scattered throughout. Basically, I would read the story first before giving it to a student, and if you are going to use it in your classroom or read with your child, be aware of the flaws in order to reap the benefits of such a story.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Another Cheesy Title and Another Cute Book!

Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy (Gallagher Girls)
I guess we don't learn from our mistakes, Ally Carter! Cheesy titles are NOT your best friend! I guess as long as you continue writing cute, fun books, I will ignore your silly titles and goofy covers. But please strive for "witty" next time, not "campy"!

The Gallagher Girls series continues with more of Cammie Morgan and the other young spies in training. It begins with her CIA brief about her security breaches last semester when she broke all protocols and rules by sneaking out of Gallagher to date a local boy. Now she has been forced to break up with Josh, and he has had his memory wiped with Cammie's mother's special tea. While Cammie still thinks about Josh all the time, she has bigger issues on her plate when Gallagher opens its doors to the boys of Blackthorne. Blackthorne is the male, much more sinister counterpart to Gallagher, and the two schools have merged briefly to give them a chance to get to know people they will be working with once they graduate. But something doesn't add up...

Since the boys arrived, odd things have been happening. First a Code Black occurs during a ball they have in the mansion as one of their finals (they all have aliases they must stick to). No one knows where the outside breach occurred for a Code Black, but Cammie is suspicious of the Blackthorne guy named Zach who she sees in the hallway just as the alarm is thrown. And Zach is definitely hiding something, in between his attempts to drive Cammie crazy! With the Gallagher Girls half stunned by their sudden exposure to boys (mornings get much more hectic with all the makeup and outfit changes!) and half suspicious by the sneaky Blackthornes, this is another fun and intriguing story in the Gallagher mansion!

The story and characters were interesting and kept the brief story alive. As with the first story, there is nothing inappropriate in this story for a young reader, but it might be too immature for an older, low-skilled reader. This is best kept for middle school students. But the world in the Gallagher mansion gets more and more exciting with each book!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Don't Let the Cheesy Title and Cover Fool You

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You (Gallagher Girls)
It is so sad when horrible titles and silly covers happen to good books. After reading Heist Society, by Ally Carter, (another stupid title) I knew to look past the packaging with her Gallagher Girls series and give it a shot. But I am not going to lie, I never would have picked up a book called I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You... not without previous knowledge of the author's story telling prowess!

Cammie Morgan is a Gallagher Academy legacy, and her mother is the headmistress, but she is another kind of legacy, too. Both Cammie's parents were spies. In fact, the Gallagher Academy is a school for teen girl spies-in-training. The town where Gallagher Academy resides, however, thinks the Academy is for over-privileged rich girls. The girls' first mission is to keep the deep cover of the school and remember their legends (back stories) with the rest of the town.

On a routine Covert Ops assignment (tail an untailable faculty member), Cammie is noticed by a local boy. This wouldn't be so unnerving if Cammie wasn't considered the best "pavement artist" at the Academy. She is able to go completely unnoticed and blend into the background in any situation... so how did Josh see her? With a hilarious troupe of misfit young female spies, Cammie and her genius friends begin Covert Ops on Josh to make sure he isn't a Honey Pot (a person using attraction to derail a spy). But Cammie's star-crossed interest in Josh could lead to more trouble than they bargained for!

The first installment of the Gallagher Girls Series is really fun! It isn't the deepest story, or have some important lesson to be learned, but instead is just some good, wholesome, PG-13 rated fun! I can understand the critics of the series who are worried about the "action" of the story, but it is important to remember these girls are 15-16 years old. There isn't any real spy trouble at the academy (although I predict it might appear later in the series) because these are young girls in training. But the fun, silly happenings are still enough to keep a reader engaged and laughing.

The reading level is fairly low, the content is very, very mild, and the story is lots of fun. This is the perfect book for early middle school. I would recommend this for a wide range of students (although I don't think it would appeal to boys), including high skilled 4th graders all the way to 9th grade. It might even be suitable for a low-skilled 10-12th grader, but only if they are a little more immature than their peers. I can imagine this series might be too young for most older students. But if you find the right girl to read this series, you are going to have a happy reader!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Exiled to a Dystopia

As we continue to hurt our environment beyond repair, wage war with the very elements that are keeping us alive, and are basically taunting mother nature to show us who is really boss, it is no wonder there are tons of environmental apocalypse stories hitting the shelves these days. While X-isle, by Steve Augarde, hovers between a fairly recent apocalyptic flooding that changes the face of the earth and a depressing dystopia, it certainly sends a message that we have no idea what we are in for...

Baz is living on the mainland, which has been ravaged by the floods. Food is scarce, living conditions are terrifying, and the one ray of hope for a young boy such as himself is X-isle. The island used to be a school for girls that has become a home base for the Eck brothers and their father, Preacher John(Eck Island...X-isle...). They use their diving equipment to salvage for canned food and supplies that they trade with people on the mainland. When they visit the mainland, they sometimes take young boys (no girls) to help work on the island. While no one really knows what goes on at X-isle, they are certain it has to be better than the mainland and therefore try everything to get the Eck brothers to take their sons to the safety of the island.

When Baz gets to the island with the other boy accepted that day, Ray, they realize the island is certainly no oasis. The boys are put to hard labor, tortured by the two older capos, and terrified of Preacher John and the Eck brothers. Despite the grueling living conditions, though, they still have to admit it is better than the mainland. They might only get one can of food a day, but at least they are sure they will get a meal every day, unlike the mainland. But the boys are starting to suspect the brothers don't bring the boys back to the mainland once they get too big (and therefore pose a possible threat to the brothers). When the cook is deemed "too big" and gets sent back to the mainland, it becomes obvious he was left at sea since the brothers went diving instead of trading. Then the boys decide they must devise a plan to save themselves or face the fate of countless other boys in the polluted waters off the island. With the help of Gene, the very smart mechanic boy, they devise a way to build a bomb with the only fuel they possess- farts! Now they have to find a way to complete their plan before it is too late...

If you have read quite a few dystopias or post-apocalyptic stories and are looking for another, this is a good choice, but I wouldn't give it to someone who hasn't yet been sold on the sub-genre. It is a decent story with interesting characters, but it isn't the best YA dystopia out there. The story has a tendency to drag in a few places and lost me at times. I would have appreciated a little less of the middle 250 pages where the boys settle into life on the island and more of the aftermath of their bomb. It was a very long book for how little actual action existed in the whole story.

The reading level is fairly low- probably best for grades 7-10, but the author and setting are British. This leads to some language and slang that may be confusing for a younger, less sophisticated reader. I would suggest this story for either an adult interested in YA dystopias or a student who has read a significant amount within this sub-genre. While the story wasn't the best dystopia I have read this summer, it does provide a world of topics for discussion. What will happen when the delicate environment finally lashes out at us? Which is worse, starving on the mainland or working to death (quite literally) on the island? How do people react in dire circumstances? It even discusses the difference between murder and self-defense at great lengths. This book is an avenue for many great discussions!