Guts Book Review

It’s absolutely incredible how quickly time flies. Almost a year ago I was contacted by an indie author who wanted to do a virtual author visit with my students. Christine Reynebeau truly inspired me to follow my own dream, which at the time was starting my online tutoring business, and has continued to be extremely supportive of all my progress. In the past I have reviewed her picture books Celebrate and PB&J, and today I’m excited to share another one of her works.

Guts, by Christine Reynebeau, is the perfect picture book for teaching children the importance of trusting your gut.

I love that the writing style is so clear and simple so that children of all ages can comprehend what is happening. The use of dialogue in this one really allows readers to grasp the concept of “following your gut” without it being confusing. Reynebeau even has the little boy ask his mom for clarification, which allows for a smooth transition into the definition. It feels like a natural scenario between a mother and her child.

There are little bits of humor in the story as well. The little boy touches his gut to see if it will talk a few times to test out his mom’s theory. I could see a classroom of students finding this part funny and laughing during reading time.

The writing flows perfectly into a great, realistic example for young readers. While the little boy is playing outside with his classmates, they want to go explore and area they aren’t allowed in. By following his gut, the little boy tells his friends he doesn’t think it’s a good idea and goes off to play something else. This pays off immediately when he sees how upset the teacher is and the punishment that comes shortly after for those involved. Readers are able to draw conclusions on their own through the clear writing and pictures of the importance of following your gut.

I would recommend this book for preschool through first grade. I also think it would make a great addition to anti-bullying and character education lessons.

To purchase the book click here.

6 Favorite Indie YA Novels

Last week I shared What’s So Special About YA? and My Favorite 10 YA Novels. Today I want to share my favorite indie YA novels by some absolutely incredible authors. I have had the privilege to work with these ladies when I reviewed their works. The indie community is extremely supportive of one another, and it’s an honor to be friends with these incredible individuals. Here are my faves in no particular order.

Swimming Sideways by CL Walters. As I discuss in my review, this novel dives into the true realities that teenagers deal with today. This is book one of the Cantos Chronicles, a YA trilogy, told from three different perspectives, which makes it relatable to all readers. The plot does not sugar coat the struggles that Abby endures with social media, friendships, and family, making readers wish they could hug this character.

Twisted Games by Brenda Felber. Not only did I review this book, but I had the privilege of doing a virtual author visit with Brenda. Not only is this novel a mystery that takes place in Michigan, where most of my virtual students live, it’s also historical fiction, with a little bit of fantasy. In my opinion, this text is in a category all of its own because it is so unique and will captivate middle school readers. The plot is not super obvious, which I enjoyed, and it will leave readers wanting to read more.

Blood by Kirsten Krueger. I get so excited to talk about this author because we grew up in the same town. She was amazing and came to one of my teen writing club meetings last year and talk about her first novel, which I was excited to review. Kirsten does an incredible job of diving into her characters and making them come alive for readers. Since this novel is Harry Potter fan fiction, you get all of those incredible elements of Hogwarts and friendship.

I Am This Girl: Tales of Youth by Samantha Benjamin. When I read this book to write my review, I was immediately amazed at how raw the plot was. This text jumps into the world of teenage girls, bullying, family issues, and teenage sexuality. It is without a doubt a scary world, but it enlightens readers about the complexities of being a teenage girl in today’s world.

Bound in Silver by Marie Grace. As I stated in my review, this book is the total YA fantasy fangirl novel. I really can’t think of a better way to describe this text. As a total fangirl, this book got me super excited as I made connections to so many of my fave YA novels. The feel of this book is more mature, so I would recommend this one for students in eighth grade and up. This is book one in The Clock Keeper Chronicles, so I’m looking forward to what is to come for the characters.

Project Dandelion by Heather Carson. In my review, I mention that this YA dystopian book is about the potential end of life in the US. This quick read has a fast moving plot that focuses on survival with a hint of mystery as the characters question their changes in life more and more. Recently, I reviewed the second book, Project Dandelion Reentryand still can’t wait to hear what happens next.

Open Book Book Review

In the mid 2000s I was in high school and wanted nothing more than to be Jessica Simpson. She had this gorgeous Louis Vuitton purse and an insanely hot husband. Like most girls, I watched Newlyweds and have the DVDs still, which I will never part with. I was just like Jessica, the ditzy dumb blonde, and truthfully I can still have my moments. When she was getting divorced I was also dealing with the breakup of one of my high school boyfriends and felt connected to her, which sounds extremely lame saying this 15 years later.

About two weeks ago I started seeing that she was releasing a book on social media. To be honest, it’s been quite a while since I thought about her. I knew she was an extremely successful business woman with her Jessica Simpson Collection and that she was married with kids. But, I have to admit I was intrigued about her book.

Open Book, by Jessica Simpson, is truly a remarkable memoir that encourages readers to accept themselves and to never give up.

Right away I loved the writing style of this piece. In the very beginning, Simpson  explains the reasons for her authenticity and honesty in the future pages. I instantly trusted the writer and loved how she talked to the reader throughout the work. She speaks to readers as though she’s speaking with her best girl friends, creating a bond.

I knew Jessica grew up as a pastor’s daughter, but I never realized how devoted to her faith she really is. As a Jersey girl myself, families like the Simpson’s are not super common, so when she described her childhood I not only understand the power of her faith, but I can also appreciate and respect it. She truly believes she is doing God’s work through singing and helping others, and I can definitely see that. She is dedicated to supporting and honoring troops, children and women all over the world.

It’s pretty common knowledge that our childhood greatly impacts our lives as adults, and that is what happened to Simpson. She was touched inappropriately as a child for years by another girl and that experience has without a doubt shaped her into the person she is today. She is so honest and raw in expressing how this situation caused her anxiety and the need to be accepted, which ultimately led her to alcoholism. She does not make excuses for her behavior, but reflects on certain stages of her personal downfall by connecting all of the dots. Her explanations are crystal clear and allow readers a true peek into her world.

One of my favorite parts of the book was of course about her marriage to Nick Lachey. As a 16 year old girl in high school, I sympathized with Nick when he released his album What’s Left of Me, however, there are always two sides to the story. Hearing Simpson’s side for the first time in the book made me want to sit down and have a glass of wine with her. And, I have to admit, rewatch Newlyweds.

Marriage is as personal as it can get. No one will ever know all of the details except the husband and wife. It’s very easy to bash the other, especially in the public eye, but to her credit, Simpson explains this chapter of her life with poise and grace. I do not look at Nick Lachey any differently than I did as a teenager. The woman has true class.

Regardless of what Simpson was experiencing in her personal life, she never stopped growing as a successful woman. She started the Jessica Simpson Collection and turned into a boss babe (woot woot!). She used her personal struggles to help others. When she was getting publicity for being “fat” she instead turned it around and made sure she was creating items that flattered all woman.

Simpson is very open and honest about her romantic relationships with John Mayer and Tony Romo. Like most women, she gets caught in the web of going back and forth with a guy. As a reader you want to yell at her that the guy is a jerk, but she wants to be loved so much that she can’t see it. It’s always easy for an outsider to see these things, but when you’re the one involved you don’t always realize what’s happening. I actually remember a segment from E! News where Jessica is in a box at the infamous football game to watch Tony Romo and she was wearing the pink jersey. My heart went out to her when Romo never publicly stood up and defended her.

One of my favorite parts is when Simpson talks about building her family. You can feel her giddiness as she tells the story about meeting Eric and their connection jumps off the pages. The love she has for her children is undeniable.

Simpson is truly a warrior. She is her own worst critic, but has a tremendous amount of self love and acceptance. Personally, I believe she is in incredible role model, especially as she juggles motherhood, marriage and business. Her strength contagious and motivates readers to be true to themselves.

To purchase the book click here.

My 10 Favorite YA Novels

The other day I shared a post about what makes YA so special (click here to read it), and it made me start thinking about all of the YA books that I love. So, I decided to share my personal list of favorite YA novels, in no particular order.

Divergent by Veronica Roth. I literally can’t even type that title without smiling. I have loved this novel since it first came out, and have used it as a read aloud with my students every year. It’s honestly a book that has turned many of my non-readers into readers. I love it because the plot is fast paced with lots of twists, the characters are incredibly relatable, and there is just a hint of mystery that keeps readers on their toes. It’s not the typical mushy gushy teen love story, but shows the importance of teamwork in a relationship.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. These books just make my heart so happy. I have read this series more times than I can count, and I am now addicted to the audio books. This to me will always be a staple in YA literature culture because it sparked a movement in our society that showed the power of a book. I love it because it’s beyond imaginative and creative in terms of plot, the characterization is incredible as we see them grow up, and the timeless theme of good vs. evil is captivating.

The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney. When I was in middle school I saw the TV movie of this novel and instantly fell in love with the story. For the next 15 years ish I read the series and followed Janie’s story. When the final story was released a few years ago, I knew I wanted to somehow introduce my students to this incredible mystery. I dedicated an entire school year read aloud to my honors sixth grade students every day for 10 minutes. We literally cried on the last day we finished the series because we were all so emotionally invested in the characters. I absolutely LOVE how intricate and complex the plot is, especially as readers discover more about certain characters. This is a fabulous option for students who love realistic mysteries.

The City of Bones by Cassandra Clare. I feel like I’m home whenever I re-read this series. The characters are some of my best friends, especially because they can always make me laugh with their wit and sarcasm. As a reader, I love that I can be a total English nerd and analyze this text for religious symbolism and a whole slew of inferences. This is definitely a series I would read with a pen and highlighter in hand. I tried to watch Shadowhunters when it was a TV series, and I couldn’t make it through the first episode because I didn’t want to destroy my personal version in my head. The use of fantasy in this series sucks readers into a world they will never want to leave. I’m also a fan of the maturity of this series, which gives it a really great YA feel.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. I truly don’t have enough words to describe my love for this novel. I remember reading it in 6th grade, and I still have my original copy. While the plot and characters are fabulous, I LOVE the underlying messages in this text. The battle of good vs. evil, light vs. dark, government control, and so, so much more. I love the feeling of empowerment this book gives readers to fight for what’s right. The symbolism is so decadent and rich, which makes it an amazing novel to use with middle school readers. Truthfully, I get excited whenever I do my Wrinkle unit.

Pop Princess by Rachel Cohn. I remember seeing this book at my local library as a teen and devouring it. Teens are always fascinated about being a celebrity and living that kind of lifestyle. Since I grew up in the 2000s, hello bubble gum pop era, this book got my attention. I love how the plot took readers on a realistic journey as Wonder went from working at Dairy Queen to being a pop sensation. It felt very 2000s, and was a fun, quick read.

Dreamland by Sarah Dessen. I mentioned this text in my previous post, What’s So Special About YA?, so it obviously had to make my list. One of my favorite aspects about YA novels is there really are no boundaries when it comes to plot. This one touches on a very sensitive subject of abuse, but I think that’s why I like it so much. While it doesn’t sugar coat anything, the writing isn’t too in your face and instead shows readers Caitlin’s experience. I love the use of POV in this one, because we gain an insight into what victims of abuse go through.

The Selection by Kiera Cass. Full disclosure, I’m addicted to reality TV, specifically the Real Housewives franchise. When I first started reading this series I could taste the reality TV feel right away. It’s very Bachelor in a sense. However, the reality feel doesn’t stay for very long before it morphs into a love story with some major problems. I loved the fun tone of this series and of course the idea of a prince and princess. I honestly made my classes have a reading day the day the final book came out just so I could read it (which they totally didn’t mind).

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. I know, I know. Similar to Harry Potter, Twilight sparked something in our society which turned it into an incredible phenomenon. Werewolves, vampires and a love story don’t sound that exciting until you read the series. During the peak of its popularity, it wasn’t uncommon for readers to pick a team, which readers still take extremely seriously. I will forever be Team Jacob, and I apologize if I offend anyone. (Never go back to a man that left you). It’s an incredibly easy read that speaks to the heart of teenage girls because they all want that deep love.

Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick. This is probably the most underrated YA book I’ve ever come across. For the life of me I don’t understand how it was never more popular. This was my very first unit plan during my practicum experience and it will always hold a special place in my heart. I love the realness of this novel. Steven’s little brother is diagnosed with cancer. We follow Steven as he deals with an incredibly challenging home life and dealing with middle school all at the same time. The dialogue and characterization are spot on for an 8th grade boy, which makes the story that much better.

 

What’s So Special About YA?

When we often think of children’s literature we immediately think of classics like The Secret Garden, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, etc. Yet, as many educators and parents know, a children’s section of a library does not just mean picture books.

When a child feels they have outgrown the “baby” books, but they are too young for the adult section, they are ready to enter the young adult (YA) section of a library.

But, what exactly is YA? What makes it so special? This genre is much more than just an in-between one for readers who are usually in middle and high school.

YA tends to focus on main characters who are between the ages of 12-18. Why? Because this is the main demographic of readers. Tween/teen readers want to read about characters who are around their age, so it makes sense that main characters in YA are on the younger side.

YA also tends to focus on plot points that deal with family, friendship, love, authority, leadership and growing up. While the YA genre can be broken down into subcategories such as sci-fi and fantasy, it’s important to realize that these same ideas are present regardless of the sub genre. Tween/teen readers are going through a lot at this stage of life. They are constantly dealing with bullying, social media, dating, family issues, puberty, and more. It’s not wonder they turn to YA novels to seek answers they may not even know they are looking for. While they probably won’t read a self help book, they may look at how Percy Jackson dealt with learning the truth about his family in The Lightning Thief, and see him as a role model.

YA novels are extremely powerful tools to help readers cope with reality.

Truthfully, any reader will tell you they read to escape reality, even if it’s just to relax at night before bed. The same happens to adolescent readers. If you were to Google popular YA novels, quite a few of them are sci-fi or fantasy based. Why? These types allow readers to completely forget about their reality. For just a little bit they can be a participant in The Hunger Games and watch Katniss kick some major butt.

There is also a sense of maturity in reading YA. Oftentimes the content can be more suggestive, gritty, and real. Gone are the G rated books, and readers can step into worlds where they mention sex, drugs, alcohol, smoking, violence, etc. This is where parents usually get nervous about YA. In truth, when I have read YA books aloud to my students I have omitted words, sentences, or whole sections of a chapter. We need to remember that these books are meant to draw in readers from ages 12-18, so of course there’s going to be some things not meant for sixth grade students.

However, with the aid of technology, it’s easy for a parent to check to see if a book is appropriate for a tween. My personal go to checker is CommonSenseMedia.org, which can be used as a guide for parents, educators and advocates.

Personally, I also find that YA is raw on an emotional level. Characters take us on an emotional journey with them as they make decisions and live through experiences. One of my favorite YA novels is Dreamland by Sarah Dessen. I read it in middle school and have returned to it a few times since then. We see the main character, Caitlin, go through the shock of dealing with her runaway sister, and how that emotional trauma led her down a dangerous path of drugs and a physically abusive relationship. Caitlin expresses why she stays with Rogerson and isolates herself from her friends and family, which is truly an emotional journey filled with anger, sadness, and love.

As an adult reader, I am still drawn to YA because of these factors. The writing is incredible, and the characters are truly real people to readers.

Project Dandelion: Reentry Book Review

It’s been a little while since I read a YA dystopian novel, so I decided to get back to my true love. In July I reviewed Project Dandelion, and I was so excited when the author sent me a copy of the sequel.

Project Dandelion: Reentry, by Heather Carson, is a fabulous YA dystopian novel that reminds readers how important it is to fight for our rights.

The story picks up right where the first book left off. The group is heading towards Katrina’s dad’s cabin to seek safety and hopefully answers. The nuclear explosions have cleared and the world is covered in ash. Early on, the group encounters survivors who realize the teens are part of Project Dandelion and try to capture them. However, the survivors don’t know they are dealing with incredibly resourceful teens who manage to escape.

During their trek to the cabin, the group uses their survival skills to hunt, fish, build shelter, etc. They work together to stay alive and they don’t leave anyone behind. I love that even those this takes place in modern day, the kids aren’t helpless without the use of a cellphone. There is no Alexa for them to ask for help, and yet these teenagers are able to make it through.

There is a smidge of teenage love, but it reminds me of the relationship between Tris and Four in Divergent. Katrina and James are like a team, supporting one another and keeping on eye out for the other. They do kiss, but other than that there is no mushy gushy stuff going on. Personally, I admire teenage relationships like this because it teaches readers about the important aspects of what to look for in a partner.

Without giving too much of the plot away, we learn more about Project Dandelion as the story progresses. The new government wants to keep all of the chosen teenagers safe so they can help create a new society. While this sounds good in theory, it quickly becomes obvious that the teens will not have many choices in the new world. They will be forced to have children in a few years and do what the new government tells them.

Katrina, Dreya, Mia, James and Jayden continue to go against the crowd, as they did in the first novel, to fight for their rights. They want the right to make decisions about their own lives, such as when to have children and where to live. By working together, they demonstrate the power of teamwork and perseverance. They don’t let petty teenage drama cloud their judgements, and show how important maturity is.

As we know, there is no utopia without a dystopia, and this novel is a fantastic demonstration of this idea. It is a quick read with a few curse words, so I would recommend the text for eighth grade and up.

To purchase the book click here.

The Knowledge Gap Book Review

It’s no secret that I’m an education nerd. I’m drawn to all things literacy and curriculum. Over my last ten years in education I have seen a lot of different theories, standards, and curriculum come and go with no real answers about how to improve the knowledge gap.

The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System- And How to Fix It, by Natalie Wexler, examines the struggles American schools face, how it affects students, and possible solutions.

As a reader, it usually takes me twice as long to get through a nonfiction education book because I need to take breaks. The writing styles of these texts are dry and I find myself taking social media breaks. However, I have to admit, Wexler did an absolutely incredible job making the content flow. I think a lot of that has to do with her breaking up the reading with real life examples from different classrooms, and history of curriculum in America. The change up in content definitely kept me engaged longer and allowed me to draw my own conclusions between the historical facts/accounts and the classroom examples.

While the title doesn’t mention literacy, this whole book truly dives into the deep end of reading and writing. As Wexler points out, reading and math tend to be the focal points in elementary classrooms because of state tests. Even though teachers may have science and social studies scheduled for once a week, it’s rare that those lessons happen because teachers feel the need to constantly hit on reading skills.

One of the main ideas is that using balanced literacy, leveled readers, and guided reading are not helping students improve their reading comprehension skills. The Reading Wars are discussed briefly, with both sides being explained. However, it is crystal clear that phonics based explicit instruction will help the majority of all students learn to read, including those who are English Language Learners, classified with a learning disability, etc. As a reading teacher I was doing a happy dance with the evidence supporting phonics instruction.

Of course, one can’t discuss balanced literacy without mentioning Lucy Calkins. Wexler makes a fantastic argument against the literacy guru that there are indeed flaws in this reading model (and writer’s workshop, too). Readers even “saw” examples in the sections where Wexler observed classrooms using this concept.

But, if balanced literacy is not helping students, then what will?

The author’s #1 point in the 263 pages, is that in order to improve reading comprehension, students need to have more background knowledge, which can only be accomplished by exposing early elementary students to science and history. Yes, some students have social studies where they learn about members in the community, but they need world and US history.

Students have a thirst for knowledge and want to be challenged. Obviously we don’t want students feeling overwhelmed and shutting down, but the classroom teacher is there to guide students. Students can handle advanced vocabulary if they are seeing it in content-rich curriculum. The point of the Common Core was to have American students build on their knowledge from year to year, which a content-rich curriculum does.

Wexler also mentions Daniel Willingham. For my loyal readers you know that I LOVE this man and his book Raising Kids Who ReadIn The Knowledge Gap, Willingham is referenced for his contributions to education and the cognitive psychology. Yay!

Finally, Wexler’s last point was about teaching writing. I will admit during college and student teaching I was always told to teach that writing is a process. I have never used Lucy Calkin’s writing units, but would instead make up my own assignments/tasks with fellow colleagues. The author mentions Judith Hochman, who experimented with a teaching method that started with sentences and taught mechanics at the same time, and has seen great success. Not only has this approach been proven to improve student writing, it has also increased reading comprehension and the ability to critique information they are learning. Hochman and Wexler authored The Writing Revolution, which offers a road map for educators.

WOW!

I have so many parts underlined and marked in this book that there is no way I can share them all in a blog post. However, I would love to share my favorite line.

“…the transformation from a focus on comprehension skills and reading levels to one on content and knowledge is beginning to take hold.” (Wexler 259).

Education is changing. The Common Core sparked that change and caused a lot of educators to look at their teaching methods. As the education world continues to evolve, we need to remember that even though we live in a digital age where students can Google anything, we still need to be providing students with information. Knowledge rich curriculum makes sense for today’s readers. If we want to see changes in our students we have to start looking at the elementary school classrooms.

I recommend this amazing book for superintendents, principals, curriculum supervisors, teachers and anyone thinking about entering the world of education.

To purchase the book click here.