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The Undefeated
Author: Kwame Alexander
Illustrator: Kadir Nelson
Published April 2, 2019 by Versify

Summary: The Newbery Award-winning author of The Crossover pens an ode to black American triumph and tribulation, with art from a two-time Caldecott Honoree.
Originally performed for ESPN’s The Undefeated, this poem is a love letter to black life in the United States. It highlights the unspeakable trauma of slavery, the faith and fire of the civil rights movement, and the grit, passion, and perseverance of some of the world’s greatest heroes. The text is also peppered with references to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others, offering deeper insights into the accomplishments of the past, while bringing stark attention to the endurance and spirit of those surviving and thriving in the present. Robust back matter at the end provides valuable historical context and additional detail for those wishing to learn more.

Ricki’s Review and Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This is an incredibly powerful book. I loved seeing the poem (which was previously performed) turned into a picture book. The book touches upon many critical topics for youth to consider across time and place. It offers a strength that makes readers want to jump from their chairs to support the message of the text. This is a must-read. Teachers might use this book in classrooms by asking students to select a page that they find to be particularly inspiring. Then, they might research individuals who reflect the undefeated-ness that they see on the pages. This might devolve into research projects that explore the “faith and fire,” as quoted from the book summary, that students see across time, space, and place.

Discussion Questions: 

  • How does this book make you feel?
  • What do you perceive to be the author’s and illustrator’s purpose(s)?
  • What similarities and differences do you see across the pages?

Read This If You Love: Out of Wonder by Kwame Alexander; We March by Shane W. Evans; Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles; The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson; Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer by Carole Boston Weatherford

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Searching for Lottie
Author: Susan L. Ross
Publication Date: February 26th, 2019 by Holiday House

Summary: Lottie, a talented violinist, disappears during the Holocaust. Can her grand-niece, Charlie, discover what happened?

A long-lost cousin, a mysterious locket, a visit to Nana Rose in Florida, a diary written in German, and a very special violin all lead twelve-year-old Charlie to the truth about her great-aunt Lottie in this intriguing, intergenerational mystery. 12-year-old middle schooler Charlie, a budding violinist, decides to research the life of her great-aunt and namesake for a school ancestry project. Everyone in Charlie’s family believes Great-Aunt Charlotte (Lottie), a violin prodigy, died at the hands of the Nazis, but the more Charlie uncovers about her long-lost relative, the more muddied Great-Aunt Lottie’s story becomes. Could it be that Lottie somehow survived the war by hiding in Hungary? Could she even still be alive today? In Searching for Lottie, Susan Ross has written a highly personal work of historical fiction that is closely inspired by her own family members whose lives were lost in the Holocaust.

About the Author: Susan Ross grew up in Lewiston-Auburn, Maine, and divides her time between Connecticut and Maine. She attended Brown University and NYU School of Law.

After practicing law, Susan taught legal writing in Brooklyn and in Budapest, and creative writing to kids and adults in Connecticut. She especially loves author visits. There is nothing Susan enjoys more than hanging out in a classroom talking to students about her books and teaching kids about writing and literature!

Kiki and Jacques was inspired by the experience of Somali refugees who moved to Susan’s hometown in Maine. Susan worked with refugee teenagers in writing the book and was greatly moved by their amazing positive energy and hopeful determination.

Searching for Lottie was inspired by stories from members of Susan’s family, whose lives were forever changed by the Holocaust.

Susan teaches writing at Westport Writers Workshop and is a trustee at the Westport Library.

Review: I think historical fiction is one of the most important genres because it makes us relive history in ways that we never could without story. Searching for Lottie is interesting because it is contemporary but also includes a historical narrative as Charlie learns more and more about Lottie. This makes it a great choice for students who may not like historical fiction but are interested in history.

I am also a fan of Susan Ross’s writing because she does a fabulous job taking a tough subject and writing a middle grade novel that gives an introduction to the topic without being too mature but also while not sugar coating it. It is so important to have middle grade books for our students that show the real world in an appropriate yet real way.

And it really helps that the stories are interesting and many kids will connect with the conflicts and events the characters take part in.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: Searching for Lottie is inspired by true events, specifically those of Susan’s family. She shares much on her website including this background information:

Charlotte Kulka (called Lotte — in English, “Lottie”) was my mother’s teenage cousin. She lived in Prague with her father, a doctor. Her mother passed away when she was little. Tragically, Charlotte and her father both perished, but her beloved aunt, my Cousin Vally Szemere, survived with false papers in Budapest. Vally boarded with a Catholic family who protected her and they became lifelong friends. My middle name was given in Lotte’s memory.

Another relative, Magda Szemere, was a famous young violin soloist in Europe before she, too, was arrested and forever disappeared. I wrote about my bittersweet delight at finding her music in the essay, “Sweet Strings of Sorrow.”

In doing the research for this book, I discovered to my astonishment that her music had been preserved on gramophone recordings and remains available in music archives.

My mother’s cousin, Magda Krizan, survived the war posing as a model and nanny in Hungary — and was a member of the resistance. She escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia with her husband in 1968 and came to America.

My mother, Erika Lencz, escaped Vienna in 1938 with her brother, Erwin. She was twenty years old. My grandparents and nearly all of the rest of her family were lost. Mom worked in a pillow factory in Brooklyn and as a nanny before settling down in Maine with my father, where she ran our family wedding gown shop and had five children.”

Visit http://www.authorsusanross.com/about-searching-for-lottie/ to listen to the recording and view photos.

This information along with Charlie’s project in the book makes me want to ask students to learn about their family (remember to have a plan for any adopted, foster, or other kids with no access to family history!).

Parts of the story also would be a great addition to an orchestra classroom as Charlie and Lottie write about different pieces, specifically the music journal that Lottie kept.

Finally, as with most historical fiction novels, this story would be a fantastic jumping off point for inquiry in the classroom about our world’s past.

Discussion Questions: 

  • After listening to the pieces that Charlie and Lottie share in the book, which piece is your favorite?
  • What other ways did Jews and other ostracized humans escape Nazi-occupied territory during World War II?
  • What traits did Charlie show when researching her namesake?
  • How did the research change her relationship with her brother?
  • Using evidence from the text, how can you tell that Charlie loves music?

Flagged Passages: “‘Lottie was Nana’s sister, right?’

‘Yes, Lottie was several years older. Your nana told me how clever she was; how determined…just like you.’ Mom smiled. ‘And here’s another thing you two have in common–Lottie played the violin. In fact, Lottie played so beautifully that she performed with the Vienna Philharmonic when she was a teenage.’

‘Seriously?’ That was a weird coincidence. Violin was her thing, too. Charlie had begged her parents for lessons when she was still in kindergarten. She’d always loved music, and she liked pop and hip-hop as much as any kid at Hillmont Middle School…but there was something about classical that made her heart skip. She could lose herself in a symphony in a strange way that she never tried to explain to her friends. Only her best friend, Sarah, understood that feeling, but Sarah had moved to Boston over the summer…

‘What else do you know about Lottie?’

‘Well, the family was from Vienna, the capital of Austria. Her father was a math professor at the university.’

‘And…what exactly happened to them.’

Mom hesitated, then let out a long sigh. ‘Honestly, I’m not entirely certain. When the Germans invaded Austria, the Jews were at the mercy of the Nazis. I know that Lottie was lost, along with my grandfather. My grandmother and Nana Rose were lucky to escape. They came to America on a ship.’

‘So Lottie died…right?’ Charlie swallowed hard.

‘Yes, I guess she must have.’ Mom looked uncomfortable.

‘You guess? You don’t know for sure?’ Charlie sat up straight. She searched her mother’s blank face and glanced down at the photo. Lottie’s eyes were bright, with long dark lashes, and they were staring back up at her.

‘The truth is that nobody knows exactly what happened to Lottie…'” (p. 7-9)

Read This If You Love: Music, World War II historical fiction novels, History, Family

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**Thank you to the author for providing a copy of the book for review!!**

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Pride
Author: Ibi Zoboi
Published: September 18, 2018 by Balzer + Bray

Summary: Pride and Prejudice gets remixed in this smart, funny, gorgeous retelling of the classic, starring all characters of color, from Ibi Zoboi, National Book Award finalist and author of American Street.

Zuri Benitez has pride. Brooklyn pride, family pride, and pride in her Afro-Latino roots. But pride might not be enough to save her rapidly gentrifying neighborhood from becoming unrecognizable.

When the wealthy Darcy family moves in across the street, Zuri wants nothing to do with their two teenage sons, even as her older sister, Janae, starts to fall for the charming Ainsley. She especially can’t stand the judgmental and arrogant Darius. Yet as Zuri and Darius are forced to find common ground, their initial dislike shifts into an unexpected understanding.

But with four wild sisters pulling her in different directions, cute boy Warren vying for her attention, and college applications hovering on the horizon, Zuri fights to find her place in Bushwick’s changing landscape, or lose it all.

In a timely update of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, critically acclaimed author Ibi Zoboi skillfully balances cultural identity, class, and gentrification against the heady magic of first love in her vibrant reimagining of this beloved classic.

Teaching Pride

I love retellings of classics, and I would argue that this retelling is far superior to the original. Ibi presented at the NCTE convention, and she is absolutely brilliant. She talked about how she values the inclusion of the pantheon in literature and how she does so in her own texts. She also shared how different poems within Pride are retellings of classic poems. I love her work and will read anything she writes.

Love stories are tricky. They can get sappy quickly. This book is so much more than a love story. It interrogates themes related to economics, race, education, and gender.

Gentrification

“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up. But it’s not just the junky stuff they’ll get rid of. People can be thrown away too, like last night’s trash left out on sidewalks or pushed to the edge of wherever all broken things go. What those rich people don’t always know is that broken and forgotten neighborhoods were first built out of love” (p. 1).

Teaching Idea: As a class, explore the impacts of gentrification and displacement. Using this knowledge develop your own form of political art (https://youtu.be/JMVd5k2a2IM) to make a statement.

Culture

If Madrina’s basement is where the tamboras, los espíritus, and old ancestral memories live, the roof is where the wind chimes, dreams, and possibilities float with the stars, where Janae and I share our secrets and plan to travel all over the world, Haiti and the Dominican Republic being our first stop” (p. 23).

Teaching Idea: Pick a place in your life, and Use Zoboi’s writing as a mentor text to share that place with others (e.g. “If [place] is where_________, [another place] is where__________, where________.”

Equity

“Sometimes love is not enough to keep a community together. There needs to be something more tangible, like fair housing, opportunities, and access to resources” (p. 33).

Teaching Idea: As a class, discuss whether love is enough and whether tangible aspects must exist in order to keep a community together. Generate a concept or brain map that depicts tangible aspects that can impact communities.

Male/Female Gender Roles

I don’t need no knights in shining armor

Ain’t no horses in the hood

I killed chivalry myself with a pocketknife…” (p. 243).

Teaching idea: The teachers finds materials/advertisements that are gender-specific, and students rewrite the materials to remove gender from the text. Students evaluate how the meaning or the impact has changed.

Education

“There is more to learn

about my old, old self, and black and brown girls like me

from hoods all over this country want to

take over the world,

but there’s something missing

in our history books the public schools give us” (p. 147).

Teaching idea: Consider the school curricula. Whose voices are honored? Whose are missing? Rewrite a course to be more inclusive.

Home

“I have always thought of Bushwick as home, but in that moment, I realize that home is where the people I love are, wherever that is” (p. 270).

Teaching idea: Where is home? Create a visual depiction of your own home, and below it, write, “Home is…” How do our interpretations of home differ? What do they have in common?

Read This If You Loved: American Street by Ibi Zoboi, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson

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Death and Douglas
Author: J.W. Ocker
Published October 31st, 2017 by Sky Pony Press

Summary: Douglas has grown up around the business of death.

Generations of his family have run the Mortimer Family Funeral Home. The mortician and gravediggers are all his buddies. And the display room of caskets is an awesome place for hide and seek. It’s business as usual in Douglas’s small New England town.

Until one day an incredibly out of the ordinary murder victim is brought to the funeral home. And more startling: others follow. On the cusp of Halloween, a serial killer has arrived. And unsatisfied with the small-town investigation, Douglas enlists his friends to help him solve the mystery.

With sumptuous descriptions of a bucolic town and its quirky people, fascinating yet middle grade–appropriate insider information about the funeral process, and a crackling mystery with a heart-pounding conclusion—Death and Douglas has something for readers young and old.

About the Author: J. W. Ocker is the Edgar Award–winning author of Poe-Land: The Hallowed Haunts of Edgar Allan Poe. His work has appeared in Rue Morgue magazine, the Boston Globe, CNN, the Atlantic, and other places people stick writing. He’s from Maryland but has lived in New Hampshire since 2008. This is his first book for children.

Praise: 

“Ocker populates his eerie New England town with a memorable cast, and gives us a compelling hero in Douglas Mortimer. Kids and coffee-drinkers beware!” —Patrick Moody, author of The Gravedigger’s Son

“With the perfect balance of macabre and mystery, the ideal combination of horror and humor, the Ghastlies are bringing plenty of goosebumps and giggles for everyone!” —Brooks Benjamin, author of My Seventh Grade Life in Tights

Review: To be honest, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I started this book because it is way creepier than I thought it was going to be, but a serial killer on the loose in a town definitely will add that creep factor to any book.

Douglas is definitely well-rounded and mature when it comes to death, it has been around him his entire life, but all death he’s encountered has been natural or an accident until now. This is an interesting point of view for a character as I’ve never read a middle grade book with a character like Douglas. All of a sudden, a young boy who never feared death realizes that there is evil in some deaths and that scares him more than it may scare most because it is a new realization. This definitely adds to the suspense because Douglas is not only questioning everything around him but also on the look out for a serial killer, so all bumps in the night are a reason to jump.

I will also say that the conclusion was not what I saw coming!

Side note: Douglas and his friends did some DANGEROUS things, and I know that we have to suspend our belief when reading, but the whole time as an adult I wanted to yell at them for being so ridiculously careless in their safety by searching for a serial killer! Kids: Do not do that at home!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: My students are always asking me for mystery books or horror books, and they are so hard to come by in middle school; however, this one will be perfect for them! Death and Douglas belongs in libraries of any kind!

Discussion Questions: 

  • Why are Douglas’s friends jealous of how his parents treat him?
  • How did Douglas become so well rounded when it comes to death?
  • What is a mortician vs a medical examiner?
    • The different terms for mortician are discussed: What are the different connotations of the different terms (mortician, undertaker, funeral director)?
  • How did Douglas and his friends put themselves in danger? What should they have done instead?
  • Who do you think is the serial killer? Were you right?
  • How are Lowell and Douglas different? Why does their friendship work so well?

Flagged Passages: “Maybe Lowell’s crazy plan was worth going along with, for a little while at least. Despite the terrors of teh night, both old and new, Douglas found himself comfortably lost in his own thoughts.

Until the dogwoods spoke to him.

Somewhere behind the ordered row of trunks, a short hiss of words seemed to connect the space behind him and them. They sounded hollow, inhuman, almost breaths.

He ran.

Ran like he’d never run in gym class, like no game of tag he’d ever played in the cemetery. Cold terror is the best fuel for the body.

Douglas didn’t dare look back. Didn’t even dare try to use the cane, which suddenly seemed silly in his hands. His breath came out ragged, and his feed slapped the ground even harder as he raced across the street to the front lawn of the funeral home. As he ran, he thought he could hear echoes of those sounds behind him. So close behind.

He ran even faster.

The night silhouette of the funeral home loomed above him–a scary place for some, a safe harbor for him.” (Chapter 11)

Read This If You Love: Murder mysteries or any mysteries!

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**Thank you to Sky Horse for providing a copy for review!**

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We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga
Author: Traci Sorell
Illustrator: Frané Lessac
Published September 4, 2018 by Charlesbridge Publishing

Summary: A look at modern Native American life as told by a citizen of the Cherokee Nation

The word otsaliheliga (oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah) is used by members of the Cherokee Nation to express gratitude. Beginning in the fall with the new year and ending in summer, follow a full Cherokee year of celebrations and experiences.

Appended with a glossary and the complete Cherokee syllabary, originally created by Sequoyah

Review: This beautiful book makes for a wonderful read-aloud. I loved the repetition and the different things to be grateful for. The images are captivating, and I found myself slowing down as I read and turned each page. The seasons shift through the text, which offers great opportunities for discussion. Indigenous people are often perceived to be people of the past, but this book demonstrates that they are living, breathing people. The culture is very much alive. I’ll be gifting this book to several friends with young children.

Teacher’s Tool For Navigation: Students might list the different things that they are grateful for and draw accompanying pictures. It offers great opportunities for discussing how Native people still exists and are not relics of the past, reserved for discussions on Thanksgiving day.

Discussion Questions: How do the seasons change across the pages? How does this shift the story?; Describe the people you see on the pages. What can you learn from them?; Find three words that you don’t know. Learn what they mean and share their definitions with a peer.

We Flagged: “…while we collect buckbrush and honeysuckle to weave baskets.”

Read This If You Loved: The People Shall Continue by Simon J. Ortiz; Dreamers by Yuyi Morales; The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

Recommended For: 

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**Thank you, Donna, from Charlesbridge Publishing for sending a copy for review!**

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The Astonishing Color of After
Author: Emily X. R. Pan
Published: March 20, 2018 by Little, Brown

Goodreads Summary: Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.

Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.

Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love.

My Review: I just finished discussing this book with my class, and they loved it. It is a bit of a longer book and moves somewhat slowly, but even my students who didn’t finish it in time insisted that I should use it again next year. The writing is absolutely stunning. Pan depicts humanity in ways that are very powerful. She integrates color and emotion to connect readers to the characters. We had two one-hour class periods to discuss this book, and there were so many things to talk about. Discussion was easy, and students made meaningful connections with the book. This book is simply unforgettable. I recommend it highly and hope it wins some awards in January!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: My students said that they Googled the colors within the text as they read. We spent a lot of time talking about the colors as an effective writing tool. I asked students to think of a moment in their lives that they’d be willing to share. Then, I asked them to attach a color with the moment. They shared beautiful stories of working at drive-ins, meeting their SOs, visiting places with friends, etc. The colors they attached with the images were fascinating and made the stories come alive.

Discussion Questions: 

  • How does the author incorporate magical realism in the text? Is it effective?
  • Did Leigh and Axel’s relationship feel realistic to you? Why or why not?
  • Which scenes are beautifully written, and how do they demonstrate excellent writing?
  • Should we forgive Leigh’s father? Why might he make the decisions he makes?

We Flagged: “Once you figure out what matters, you’ll figure out how to be brave.”

Read This If You Loved: Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner, When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore, Miles Away From You by A. B. Rutledge, All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, Looking for Alaska by John Green, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

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The Impossible Knife of Memory
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Published January 7th, 2014

ALAN Walden Award Finalist 2015
National Book Award Longlist 2014
School Library Journal Best Young Adult Book of 2014

Summary: For the past five years, Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own.

Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over? The Impossible Knife of Memory is Laurie Halse Anderson at her finest: compelling, surprising, and impossible to put down.


Complexity in Young Adult Literature

In Teaching Reading with YA Literature: Complex Text, Complex Lives by Jennifer Buehler, Chapter 2 looks at Young Adult Literature and Text Complexity and gives 8 different elements to think about to help analyze the complexity of a text:

Examples of complexity in The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson

Other questions that could be asked while reading to find complexity in YAL
(Examples from Teacher Reading with YA Literature, Buehler 36-37)

  • Language: Are the sentences artfully constructed? Are the words carefully chosen? Does the author incorporate figurative language or poetic expression? Can we hear voice in the writing?
  • Structure: How is it built in terms of form and structure? How do other elements such as titles and subtitles, vignettes and interludes, shifts between past and present, or multiple points of view work together to service the whole?
  • Other Stylistic Elements: Are there other distinct elements in the text?
  • Character: What is there to explore in terms of the character’s thoughts and feelings; conflicts and contradictions; struggles, growth, and change?
  • Setting: How does the author bring us into the world of the story? What details help us to see, hear, and imagine this place?
  • Literary Devices: How does the author use literary or cultural allusions, intertextual references, dialogue, internal monologue, metaphor and symbolism, magical realism, or repetition to build meaning?
  • Topics and themes: What questions does the book ask? What ideas does it explore? What is at stake for teen readers in this book?
  • How the book is put together: How effective is the interplay between plot layers and thematic layers?

Discussion Questions/Writing Prompts for The Impossible Knife of Memory

Complexity can also be increased by the characteristics of the reader (such as motivation, knowledge, and experiences) and task variables (such as purpose and the complexity generated by the task assigned and the questions posed). Here are some examples of discussion questions or writing prompts that could be used in classrooms or with independent readers who are reading The Impossible Knife of Memory.

  • Hayley classifies all people into two categories: freaks & zombies. What does Hayley’s idea of the world show us about her outlook on life?
  • How does Laurie Halse Anderson use the idea of THEN and NOW throughout the novel to build on the theme that memories are a very complex part of life?
  • Drowning is a motif throughout the novel.
  • How does Laurie Halse Anderson show the reader that Hayley’s father is suffering and found addiction without using those words?
  • How did the inclusion of Hayley’s romantic relationship with Finn help move along the story and Hayley’s transformation? Do you feel that Hayley’s story arc would have been the same without Finn in the story?
  • How was the setting an integral part of the story? How did Hayley returning to her deceased grandmother’s home propel the story?
  • .Trish is one of the most complex characters in the book because there are many different Trishes shared with us throughout the story: Trish then, Trish now in reality, and Trish now in Hayley’s mind. How did Laurie Halse Anderson develop each of these different characters to show the reader a full picture of Trish?

This complexity information and activities can be found as a PDF on Laurie Halse Anderson’s website or my SlideShare.

To learn more about complexity in young adult literature, please read Teaching Reading with YA Literature: Complex Text, Complex Lives by Jennifer Buehler!

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