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When the Moon Was Ours
Author: Anna-Marie McLemore
Published October 4, 2016 by Thomas Dunne

Goodreads Summary: To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees, and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.

My Review: This book appears again and again on English department lists for courses about gender and sexuality. After I saw it for the dozenth time, I realized that I had to read it. I loved it so much that I adopted it for my course, and my students read it along with three other texts when we talked about gender and sexuality as they pertain to adolescence. I will admit that a few of my students had difficulty with the magical realism of the book, but overall, they found this book to be incredibly powerful and recommended I continue to use it in the course. There is so much to discuss, and it offers beautiful insight. I attach so many emotions to this book, which proves how much I cared deeply for the characters and content. If you missed this one, you should read it. I promise it will be different than any other book that you’ve read.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: The third of my class that read this book developed a great activity to inspire their peers to want to read it. They asked the students: “If an egg could cure your heartsickness, what color would it be? If a flower grew from your wrist, what type of flower would it be? If you could hang a moon from the trees to help you sleep at night, what would it look like? Or, pick another object to connect with.” We had a lot of fun discussing the great possibilities.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Why is this book used often in college English courses? What makes it so impactful?
  • What does this book teach you about people, places, life, and quite frankly, humanity as a whole?
  • There are a very many magically realistic objects in the text. If you examine them closely, what does each mean? For example, why are glass pumpkins growing in the town?

We Flagged: “Miel was a handful of foil stars, but they were the fire that made constellations” (p. 12).

Read This If You Love: Magical realism, books that make you think, books that push binary traditions of gender

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Daring Dreamers Club #1: Milla Takes Charge
Author: Erin Soderberg
Illustrator: Anoosha Syed
Published June 5th, 2018 by Random House

Summary: When you follow your dreams, the possibilities are endless!

Milla loves nothing more than imagining grand adventures in the great wide somewhere, just like Belle. She dreams of traveling the world and writing about her incredible discoveries. Unfortunately, there is nothing pretend about the fifth-grade overnight and Milla’s fear that her moms won’t let her go.

Enter Piper, Mariana, Zahra, and Ruby. Together with Milla, they form the Daring Dreamers Club and become best friends. But can they help Milla believe she’s ready for this real grand adventure?

Diverse, talented, and smart–these five girls found each other because they all had one thing in common: big dreams. Touching on everyday dramas and the ups and downs of friendship, this series will enchant all readers who are princesses at heart.

About the Creators: 

ERIN SODERBERG lives in Minneapolis, MN, with her husband, three adventure-loving kids, and a mischievous Goldendoodle named Wally. Before becoming an author, she was a children’s book editor and a cookie inventor and worked for Nickelodeon. She has written many books for young readers, including the Quirks and Puppy Pirates series. Visit her online at erinsoderberg.com.

ANOOSHA SYED is a Pakistani illustrator & character designer for animation. She received her BFA in illustration at Ceruleum: Ecole d’arts Visuels in Switzerland, and now lives in Canada. Visit her online at anooshasyed.com.

Praise: 

“Though core issues of identity, independence, and teamwork ground the novel, Disney Princess devotees will likely be the most charmed. —Publishers Weekly

“I cannot wait to “hear” the stories of all the other girls! Brava Erin SD for kicking off a new series for the younger MG set! Positive messages for kids! —Goodreads Praise

“Young readers will be able to relate to the story, there is a positive message, and the characters provide a model of friendship, showing how friends work together and support on another. Loved meeting these girls!” —Goodreads Praise

ReviewI know that at first this book may seem like a book that only Disney or Princess lovers would like, but it is so much more than that! So please do not judge this book by that idea! Instead you will find a story about girls who find a deep friendship within each other after being placed in a group at school together. With the guidance of an amazing educator, they look deep within themselves and join as a group while still celebrating their individuality.

Now, as someone who DOES love Disney and Disney princesses, I loved the angle that this book took! After the first assignment by their group teacher, the girls are asked to write about a princess who they connect with. Milla and her friends are using the strengths of the princesses as inspiration to build their own strengths. For example, Milla feels like her life is very sheltered, and she loves to write, so she finds inspiration in Belle. Ruby, who is athletic and prides herself in her strength, first struggles to connect with a princess but then she realizes that Mulan is a person that is very much who she would like to be. And each girl does her own reflection (written in her own words in a journal format).

This first book focuses on Milla, but we get to know all the girls through the inclusion of the journals and from Milla’s point of view. I assume that future books will also be in different points of view to allow readers to get to know more in depth each of the characters. I look forward to future books to see where Piper, Milla, Mariana, Ruby, Zahra and Ms. Bancroft go next!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: I love Ms. Bancroft! And I think that how she had the girls introduce themselves and her first assignment that she gave the Daring Dreamers Club would be wonderful activities in a classroom:

  • “I’d love for each of you to introduce yourself and share one of your big dreams.”
  • “I want each of you to think of a princess you connect with or feel inspired by and explain why. Dig deep and really think about your answer.”

Since each of the girls’ answers are shared in the book, they would be a great thing to share as well.

In addition, this book is going to be LOVED by realistic fiction fans! I cannot wait to share it with my students.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Which of the five main characters do you connect with the most?
  • If you had to choose a princess you connect with, who would you choose?
  • Do you think Milla went about getting her moms to trust her correctly?
  • How does Ms. Bancroft inspire the girls? How is she different than the last music teacher?
  • What is one of your big dreams?

Flagged Passages: “Milla loved reading and writing just about anything, but there was nothing she enjoyed more than creating adventures for herself. In Milla’s stories, she was always a brave hero without fears or worries of any kind. One of the things Milla most loved about writing was that she was totally in charge and got to make all the decisions about what would happen on her adventures. The only limitation was her imagination, and her imagination was vast.” (p. 6)

Read This If You Love: Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin, Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson, Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol, Whatever After by Sarah Mlynowski

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**Thank you to Sydney at Penguin Random House for providing a copy for review!**

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A Possibility of Whales
Author: Karen Rivers
Published March 13th, 2018 by Algonquin Young Readers

Summary: The story of a girl who—thanks to her friends, her famous single dad, and an unexpected encounter with a whale—learns the true meaning of family.

Twelve-year-old Natalia Rose Baleine Gallagher loves possibilities: the possibility that she’ll see whales on the beach near her new home, the possibility that the trans­gender boy she just met will become her new best friend, the possibility that the paparazzi hounding her celebrity father won’t force them to move again. Most of all, Nat dreams of the possibility that her faraway mother misses her, loves her, and is just waiting for Nat to find her.

But how can Nat find her mother if she doesn’t even know who she is? She abandoned Nat as a baby, and Nat’s dad refuses to talk about it. Nat knows she shouldn’t need a mom, but she still feels like something is missing, and her questions lead her on a journey of self-discovery that will change her life forever.

About the Author: Karen Rivers’s books have been nominated for a wide range of literary awards and have been published in multiple languages. When she’s not writing, reading, or visiting schools, she can usu­ally be found hiking in the forest that flourishes behind her tiny old house in Victoria, British Columbia, where she lives with her two kids, two dogs, and two birds. Find her online at karenrivers.com and on Twitter: @karenrivers.

Praise: 

“A remarkable novel . . . Nat’s witty and vulnerable voice drives the novel, from her wry observations about contemporary celebrity culture to the thoughtful collection of untranslatable words that help define her world. The chapters that center Harry’s perspective are just as strong, emphasizing his desire to be seen and understood, not as an abstract exemplar of a transgender child but as an individual. The novel avoids offering simple solutions for questions of identity and adolescence, instead reveling in life’s nuance and complexity. Perfect for fans of Raymie Nightingale and Counting by Sevens, Rivers’s latest work brings an improbable combination of elements together in an unforgettable story that is quirky and wise.” —School Library Journal

“Charming and sweet as it explores personal identity, life changes, love, and, of course, whales . . . Nat’s story of self-discovery is sure to inspire anyone searching for their place in the world.” —Foreword Reviews

“A worthwhile addition to library collections.” —Booklist

ReviewI am a big fan of novels that switch points of view as I feel like it gives another perspective into the story that is being told, and with this story, I am so very happy that we get to hear from Nat AND Harry. There needs to be coming-of-age stories for all types of kids, and Nat and Harry will be someone that kids that may not have someone to connect to in other books will immediately find some kids that they’ll see themselves in. And Harry’s story is one that needed to be told in a middle grade book and hadn’t yet been in a book that I’ve read, and is one that many of my students have asked for. I am so glad that Harry exists for my middle schoolers! And Nat is a special young lady whose coming-of-age story is one that middle schoolers need as well–a look at family, growing up, friendship, school, and WHALES!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: The best home for Whales will be in the right kids’ hands. This book will be perfect for all libraries, classroom and school, as well as for the right lit circle or book club.

Discussion Questions: 

  • What does Nat’s acceptance of Harry right away show you about Nat’s character?
  • How has Nat’s father’s career and her lack of mother affected her life?
  • Why was the name lion perfect for the paparazzi who followed Nat and her father?
  • What do the whales symbolize in the story?
  • How did the two points of view help shape a more thorough story?
  • What was the author’s purpose of including Bird in the story? What role did she play in Nat’s life?

Flagged Passages: 

Nat: “On her fourth day at the new place, Natalia Rose Baleine Gallagher walked down the long, lumpy trail to the beach that lay at the bottom of the slope.

The ‘Baleine’ was silent, was what she told people when they asked , which was pretty much only when she was registering at a new school or had to show her passport. Baleine was the French word for ‘whale.’ Nat loved the fact that it was there, hiding inside her perfectly normal name. She pictured the whale swimming past the Natalia Rose on her passport, surfacing when no one was looking to take a long huffing breath of air before disappearing again, under the Gallagher.

‘Baleine’ was the heart of her name. (When Nat had to do an ‘All About Me’ poster in first grade, she drew a whale where most kids put a heart.)

‘Baleine was also a secret between Nat and her mother, who named her.

Her mother, who named her, and then left.” (p. 3-4)

Harry: “Harry scratched his ear again, so hard it was probably bleeding. It was just a coincidence that it was the same ear that got hurt the year before when a group of boys in his class decided it would be funny to beat him up.

They beat him up because they hated him for knowing who he was.

That is, they beat him up because even though some dumb doctor said he was a girl when he was born, he was really a boy.

The boys who beat him up were not the kind of kids who understood things like that.

No one in that town was.

Maybe no one anywhere was.” (p. 43)

Read This If You Love: Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson; All Summer Long by Hope Larson; Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky; I Love You, Michael Collins by Lauren Baratz-LogstedTwo Naomis by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich & Audrey Vernick; Calli Be Gold by Michele Weber Hurwitz; Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamilloStealing Our Way Home by Cecelia Galante; The Real Us by Tommy Greenwald

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**Thank you to Algonquin Young Readers for providing a copy for review!**

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Miles Away from You
Author: A. B. Rutledge
Published: March 20, 2018 by HMH Books for Young Readers

Guest Review by Kaari von Bernuth

Goodreads Summary: It’s been three years since Miles fell for Vivian, a talented and dazzling transgender girl. Eighteen months since a suicide attempt left Vivian on life support. Now Miles isn’t sure who he is without her, but knows it’s time to figure out how to say goodbye.

He books a solo trip to Iceland but then has a hard time leaving the refuge of his hotel room. After a little push from Oskar, a local who is equal parts endearing and aloof, Miles decides to honor Vivian’s life by photographing her treasured Doc Martens standing empty against the surreal landscapes. With each step he takes, Miles finds his heart healing–even as he must accept that Vivian, still in a coma, will never recover.

Told through a series of instant messages to Vivian, this quirky and completely fresh novel explores love, loss, and the drastic distances we sometimes have to travel in order to move on.

Kaari’s Review: I’d like to preface this blog post by saying that I do not identify as LGBTQ in any way, so I don’t have personal experiences to say whether or not this novel presents an accurate representation of what it is like to be an LGBTQ person. But, I think that this book does provide a compelling and interesting perspective that non-LGBTQ people can understand and connect with. I liked that the entire story was written in a messaging format. It placed an interesting lens over the story because, as readers, we always know that the story is being written to someone, even if they can’t respond. The format also lends itself to casual language, which makes it an entertaining and engaging read that students will love.

This book was certainly entertaining, and I loved reading it. I loved cheering for Miles and hurting for Miles when it was appropriate. I think that Miles’ approach to grief is also an approach that many teens can connect with, and maybe learn from as well. However, this book has a lot going on in it. The main character, Miles, is coping with the loss of his transgender girlfriend. His two lesbian moms are very supportive of the LGBTQ community, and even run a summer camp for LGBTQ kids. And, Miles himself is unsure of his sexuality, which he explores more as the novel goes on. Because there are so many LGBTQ elements the author tried to fit in, it feels a little bit contrived at times, and distracts from the overall messages of acceptance of personal identity, and also of the LGBTQ community, and dealing with the intricate and complicated loss of a loved one.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: I think this book poses a lot of really interesting questions about suicide, grief, overcoming grief, acceptance, identity, potential abuse (between Oskar and his boyfriend), love, gender, and sexuality that could spark a lot of discussions for students. For these reasons, I think that this book should definitely be included in classroom libraries, and used as a literature circle book. However, if someone is looking to teach an lgbtq book to an entire classroom, I’d choose one that didn’t have quite as many lgbtq aspects, as I mentioned in the review, because it makes the book feel somewhat cluttered and contrived, and there are many other novels that would be better for teaching to a large classroom.

Discussion Questions: 

  • How is identity explored in this novel?
  • How is discrimination portrayed in this novel?
  • What kinds of violence/abuse do we see in the novel?
  • How is death/dying portrayed?
  • How does Miles cope with grief? What ways are productive and what ways are unproductive?

We Flagged: “This is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the place where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly, slowly tearing apart. It sounds so destructive, doesn’t it? Like the world could just keep spreading and eventually it’ll just crack in half and bleed out into the universe. But the good news is that it doesn’t actually work like that. When the earth splits, lava rises and cools, creating new land where there wasn’t any before. It heals as it tears. I think humans do that, too. So, anyway, this is the tenth photo I’ve taken of Vivian’s boots, and it might be my last for a little while. I do want to keep connecting and keep exploring this new scar tissue.” -Advanced Reading Copy page 224

Read This If You Loved: Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills; Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin; If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo; Suicide Notes by Michael Thomas Ford

Recommended For:

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  RickiSig

**Thank you to Kaari for reviewing this book!**

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That Inevitable Victorian Thing
Author: E. K. Johnston
Published: October 3, 2017 by Dutton

Guest Review by Kaari von Bernuth

Goodreads Summary: Set in a near-future world where the British Empire was preserved, not by the cost of blood and theft but by effort of repatriation and promises kept, That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a novel of love, duty, and the small moments that can change people and the world.

Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the empire, a direct descendent of Victoria I, the queen who changed the course of history two centuries earlier. The imperial practice of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage like her mother before her, but before she does her duty, she’ll have one summer incognito in a far corner of empire. In Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the empire’s greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir apparent to a powerful shipping firm currently besieged by American pirates. In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and romantic country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an unusual bond and maybe a one in a million chance to have what they want and to change the world in the process —just like the first Queen Victoria.

My Review: The futuristic setting of this novel that wasn’t a dystopia was very intriguing to me. Most of the futuristic novels that I’ve read have featured dystopian societies, so it was refreshing to have something that worked. I really enjoyed the multiple perspectives from the different characters, and became personally invested in their lives and experiences. I’d find myself hurting for Helena as she struggled to reconcile her identity, and rooting for August to do the right thing. In some way, all of the characters have to struggle to come of age and develop their identity based on who they want to be. 

However, I wish that this novel had placed a little more effort on the ending. While the rest of the novel had dealt with realistic challenges that an adolescent might face, the ending seemed rather contrived, and less realistic like the rest of the novel. The solution proposed at the end of the novel is not a solution that an adolescent in current society could replicate and learn from, which was disappointing.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This book poses great questions about racism (or rather the eradication of racism), as well as questions of morality. It also would be great for discussions about the influence that society can have on your life verses the influence that you decide for your life. I think that this book would be a great addition to a classroom library for kids to enjoy, or a book to be used in a reading circle. It’s engaging and could lead to interesting discussions, especially about the futuristic government and setting of the novel, and the aforementioned topics of racism, morality, and societal influence vs self. However, I do think that other novels cover these topics in a better way, which is why I wouldn’t recommend it for large classroom discussions.  

Discussion Questions: Is this novel a utopia? Dystopia? Does it fit either criteria?; How is race approached in this novel? Is there racism in the society?; What is the role of colonialism in this novel?; What is the role of the Computer? Do you think this is a good advancement?; What does the computer lack?; What morality questions does this novel pose?

We Flagged: “The Computer is sufficient if you want to know your future without taking into account your soul. I don’t mean in the eternal sense, but in the worldly. The Computer can tell you if your genes are prone to carcinoma or if you might be six feet tall, but it cannot tell you if you will enjoy dancing or if you will prefer cake to pie. I would argue that the latter is more important in terms of a long and healthy relationship” (p. 254).

Read This If You Loved: Matched by Allie Condie; Delirium by Lauren Oliver; The Luxe by Anna Godbersen; The Selection by Kiera Cass

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  RickiSig

**Thank you to Kaari for reviewing this book!**

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Star-Crossed
Author: Barbara Dee
Published March 14th, 2017 by Aladdin

Summary: Mattie, a star student and passionate reader, is delighted when her English teacher announces the eighth grade will be staging Romeo and Juliet. And she is even more excited when, after a series of events, she finds herself playing Romeo, opposite Gemma Braithwaite’s Juliet. Gemma, the new girl at school, is brilliant, pretty, outgoing—and, if all that wasn’t enough: British.

As the cast prepares for opening night, Mattie finds herself growing increasingly attracted to Gemma and confused, since, just days before, she had found herself crushing on a boy named Elijah. Is it possible to have a crush on both boys AND girls? If that wasn’t enough to deal with, things backstage at the production are starting to rival any Shakespearean drama! In this sweet and funny look at the complicated nature of middle school romance, Mattie learns how to be the lead player in her own life.

Review: I really, really, really enjoyed this book. First, it made me like Shakespeare more than I did before. Second, I think that it dealt with sexual identity in a gentle and realistic manner. 

I must admit that Shakespeare is a fear of mine because I just never have felt like I got him the way I should as an English Lit major and English teacher; however, it is what it is. When I see Shakespeare plays, I am always transported into the story and understand what all the hoopla is about, but reading it cold, I just never get it. I worried that a story about a middle school putting on Romeo and Juliet would let the Shakespeare bog it down, but it did the opposite–it helped this story be what it is. The reader learns to love Shakespeare as Mattie learns to love him. And since we are in class and at rehearsals with Mattie, we also get to be part of some of the lessons about the play thus helping the reader understand the text as well as Mattie is supposed to. It was brilliantly intertwined.

Mattie’s feelings toward Gemma are obvious to the reader before Mattie even realizes what they are, but that felt truly realistic to me because if you are someone who has already crushed on boys, feeling the same way towards a girl could be confusing, but Dee never makes it seem like what Mattie seems is anything but natural which is beautiful to see in a middle grade novel.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: In addition to being in classroom, school, and public libraries, sections of the story could definitely be used in conjunction to a reading of Romeo and Juliet. Some of the discussions of the play, both during Mattie’s English class and during play rehearsals, would be great jumping off points for similar discussions in the classroom.

Discussion Questions: What clues did Dee include that Mattie’s feelings for Gemma were deeper than she first realized?; If your class was putting on Romeo and Juliet, who do you think would be best to play each character? Explain.; What allusions to Romeo and Juliet did Dee include within the text?; Have you ever read a text that affected you the way Romeo and Juliet effected Mattie?

Flagged Passages: “But that afternoon, when I got home from Verona’s and locked myself in my bedroom to read Romeo and Juliet, something happened to me. It was kind of like a thunderbolt, I guess you could call it. Because as I was reading, I stared speaking the words out loud, feeling the characters’ emotions as if they were mind. I didn’t understand every word, and a few times I skimmed when certain characters (specifically, Mercutio and Friar Lawrench) got speechy. But the idea that Romeo and Juliet had a secret love they had to hid from their families, even from their best friends–it was a story so real I could almost see it happening in front of me.

And wen I got to the end, when Juliet discovers that Romeo is dead, and kisses his lips, and they’re still warm, I did the whole scene in front of the mirror, including the kiss. My eyes had actual tears, and I thought: It’s like this play is happening TO me. Inside me. 

I wanted to own it. I wanted to eat it, as if it were chocolate layer cake.” (p. 68-69)

Read This If You Love: Shakespeare, Middle grade novels about school life and identity 

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**Thank you to Simon & Schuster for providing a copy of the book and to Barbara Dee for reaching out to me!**

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Nonfiction Wednesday

Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday is hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy and was started to help promote the reading of nonfiction texts. Most Wednesdays, we will be participating and will review a nonfiction text (though it may not always be a picture book).
Be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy and see what other nonfiction books are shared this week!

Fun Home

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Author: Alison Bechdel
Published: June 5, 2007 by Mariner Books

Summary: In this graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel charts her fraught relationship with her late father.

Distant and exacting, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the Fun Home. It was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve.

Review: I don’t tend to read many adult books each year, but I kept seeing this book referenced. I noticed it was a 2007 publication, and when books are still being discussed frequently almost ten years later, you know they have to be good! I finally requested it from my library, and boy did I love it. I usually try to review only new books, but this book was too good not to share. I felt deeply connected with Alison and her life—despite the fact that it is nothing like mine. I was really drawn to the psychological themes she embedded and the phenomenal writing. She is incredibly smart, and this shines in her writing. The drawings are equally captivating. I am not surprised that young adults tend to read this book. It’s quite edgy and many sections made me blush, but I know this doesn’t stop teens. I will be thinking about this book for a long time.

Teacher’s Tools for Navigation: I am not a stranger to controversy, but I’d probably use this book for close reading because the images might be a bit uncomfortable for some (but not most!) of my students. There is a lot of nudity, and there are sexually explicit drawings. That said, I most certainly would have it in my classroom (nothing stops me, controversy-wise, if a book is really good and a great learning tool). A close reading of many of the beginning chapters would lead to fantastic conversations about family dynamics and psychology. There is so much to teach from this book: Tone, Author’s Perspective, Vocabulary, etc. 

Discussion Questions: How does Alison navigate her childhood?; What is her response to her father’s death? Why might this be?; What role does the Fun Home play in her life? How does this graphic novel differ from others that you’ve read?; How is the author’s writing style similar to short vignettes? What scenes stand out to you? Why might this be?

Flagged Passage: 

Fun Home ImageSource of Image

Read This If You Love: How the World Was: A California Childhood by Emmanuel Guibert; The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert; Alan’s War by Emmanuel Guibert; The Stranger by Albert Camus; The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

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RickiSig