Tag Archives: book review

Best Books About Life and How to Live It

Amy and I have been talking a lot lately about how to help our students connect meaningfully to the books they’re reading independently.  This focus on personal connections stems from our recent reading of  Louise Rosenblatt’s work, our effort to make our instruction authentic, and our noticing of the ease with which our students disconnect from the world.

One activity we gave our students the option to complete was the creation of their own Top 10 Lists, like this one.  Emily’s list is titled “Life and How to Live It,” and it is full of her own personal connections.  It’s reflective of Emily’s desire to become a published other, full of her love for literacy and learning about the world through reading.  I hope her passion spreads to your students when you share this list with them.

img_1502Emily’s Top 10 List: Life and How to Live It

Here, I present to you my top ten favorite books all loosely based around my personal favorite theme to read about: life and the different outlooks different people have on life. Some see the good in life, some see the bad, and others get to see both. Each one of us will face hardships throughout our lifetime while later on finding that one thing that makes us feel as if we have a purpose to exist. When we first open our eyes at the beginning of each day, we are faced with the option to treat this day like a curse, hiding away from this beautiful life we are given to live, or to focus our attention on the positives we have. The choice is yours.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver is hands down my favorite book of all time. I first read it in middle school and have been in love with it since then. The idea is basically that Jonas, the main character, lives in a utopian society with no bad whatsoever. At age 12 everyone in this society receives their career, and Jonas has a difficult time dealing with the career he has been given. I love this book for a few reasons: one is the way that the book itself is written, and the other is the story behind it. I love the idea that Jonas is the only one who gets to see the bad in the utopian society, because to me it sends the message that what may seem perfect, deep down has repressed secrets we all can’t see.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men: a classic. In this tale Steinbeck tells the story of George and Lennie, two friends who take on the hardship of the Great Depression. Lennie, however, takes on more considering he is practically a father figure to George. Times get hard, but they don’t give up on each other. In the end, Lennie realizes that sometimes no matter how much you love something, if it’s not what is best for you then you can and will be able to survive without it, no matter how hard it is. I think overall this is the reason why I love this book so much.

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

This book brings me to tears–a lot of tears. Based on the true story of a young man who is happy in his life, living a life full of money and materialistic things. On the other side of the story, his old college professor Morrie is diagnosed with a deadly disease and must reunite with Mitch to teach him the things in life that are truly important. I love the idea behind this story, that in life we get lost in materialistic things and lose sight of the things that are most important in this short life we are given.

717Tx5+P+7LIt’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini

The relationship between myself and this book is remarkable. I can honestly say that I personally connect to it more than most other readers. This book is about a young man who deals with severe depression and one night decides to admit himself into the hospital after contemplating suicide. He then spends a week in a psychiatric hospital, learning things about himself and everyone else. Vizzini actually spent time in a psychiatric hospital before writing this book which makes it that much better considering he can grasp the inside look on what it’s really like. I, myself, have spent time behind the doors of a psychiatric hospital, and strangely enough my story started off almost the same way Craig’s did.

Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Yet another amazing book that has the ability to bring tears to my eyes. The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows the story of Charlie, a freshman in high school who is struggling with depression and anxiety issues. Through letters, he talks about the good days and the bad, along with what is going through his mind. Charlie befriends Patrick and Sam who being to show him that it is okay to be different from everyone else.

Looking For Alaska by John Green

Looking for Alaska by John Green is a beautifully written story of a young boy who develops the nickname Pudge at a private high school where he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Alaska Young. So much happens while they are there together and he learns a life lesson. She teaches him to not be afraid of life, to go out and grab it because it can be a lot shorter than we expect.

Paper Towns by John Green

Paper Towns tells the heart-warming story of Quentin Jacobson who has secretly been in love with the girl next door, Margo. Margo taught Quentin a lesson which is the main reason I love this book so much – she taught him to go through life without being afraid of adventure. This is one of my top favorite books because I relate to Margo and her adventurous personality. I love Morgantown but I have always wanted to move somewhere where I can start completely over – the idea of recreating myself in a new place is thrilling.

410BrI9l37L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Skinny by Ibi Kaslik

Many teenage girls face a deadly mental illness – anorexia. Skinny tells the story of Giselle and how her battle with anorexia has flipped her life around. It also tells the story of her younger sister, Holly, and how her sister’s disease is effecting her life as well. The writing in this book was not my favorite, but it was still a great read. I love the idea that someone would want to put the issue of anorexia into words. My favorite part of the book, and the main reason it made my list of favorites, is the fact that it not only goes into the mind of the person facing the anorexia but someone close to her as well.

Afterparty by Ann Redisch Stampler

When I first started reading this book I didn’t think I would make it through but I’m glad I decided to finish it. Afterparty follows the story of a quiet girl who moves to a new town and decides it’s time for a change. She meets new people and gets to experience new and exciting things. This is something I have always wanted to do, which is why it made this list. Getting into a new place where you get to start completely over is more than exhilarating.

Everyday by David Levithan

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be someone else for a day? To get inside of their minds and read their deepest secrets? A, the main character in Everyday, gets to wake up in a new body each and every day. To me, the idea of this is both terrifying and fascinating. When I was reading this I was thinking about the psychological aspects of this because I want to become a psychologist one day so I will be in people’s mind, understanding then, just as A does.

What other titles teach readers about life and how to live it?  Please add your recommendations in the comments!


Wrapping up with book trailers

After a slew of snow days and an extended year that pushed the end of school into the second-to-last week of June, my students’ motivation lagged as we approached our final month together. They needed an engaging project that still proved to be challenging and fun. Inspired by Amy’s work, my students and I celebrated the end of the reader’s workshop with a final book trailer project.

The process was organic; students latched onto the idea of watching mentor texts and dissecting the craft to gain a firmer understanding of the writing genre. Over the course of a few days, we analyzed and discussed the differences between the book and movie trailers for John Green’s upcoming film Paper Towns, a class favorite. We combed through countless examples of professional book trailers, dissecting the craft of the films and looking at the cinematography, hook, pacing, script, music, and scene choices. Finally, after brainstorming and storyboarding, students used Stupeflix, WeVideo, Puppet Edu, or iMovie to generate stunning book trailers. The results blew me away.  Here is a small sample of some of the trailers I’ll be using to supplement my book talks next year.

**Make sure to unmute the video. In some cases, the sound doesn’t automatically play.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown–Created by Matt


Perfect by Ellen Hopkins–Created by Emily

Missing Pieces by Meredith Tate–Created by Alyssa

Looking for Alaska by John Green–Created by Tristan

Cinder by Marissa Meyer


“Even in the future, the story begins with Once Upon a Time.”

Are you looking for a good old fashioned dystopian YA series to start your summer?

How about a modernization of a classic fairy tale?

Or, have you been craving a story about a cyborg mechanic, trying to avoid a plague, who’s got secret mental powers, a really crappy stepmother, and is actually a lost princess?

Well, if any or all of those books sound good to you, then look no further–this one will grant all your wishes.  Cinder by Marissa Meyer is book one of the Lunar Chronicles, a series incorporating futuristic versions of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and more.  But it’s not just a book that retells a classic fairy tale–my boy readers love it too, because Cinder is a mechanic who works on androids in a post-WWIII future.  Complete with hovercrafts, bizarre medical technology, and sinister political plots, this story really has it all.

“But if there was one thing she knew from years as a mechanic, it was that some stains never came out.”

As a narrator, Cinder is complex, likable, sarcastic, and the embodiment of different.  In her society, cyborgs are considered less than human, and she battles this stereotype throughout the story.  Still, she responds to her critics with dry humor that made me guffaw as I read, and an unapologetic bent that made me know she’d be a great role model for my students.  Cinder defies convention in every way–a female mechanic, a plain princess, a cyborg in a human society–and yet her bioelectric backbone keeps her standing tall through it all.  I truly fell in love with her character by the heartbreaking, humiliating end of this first book, and immediately ordered the next two on Amazon.

“It is easier to trick others into perceiving you as beautiful if you can convince yourself you are beautiful. But mirrors have an uncanny way of telling the truth.”

Marissa Meyer crafts an incredible, fascinating future in the Lunar Chronicles, and writes with a style and flair that lend personality to the dystopian drama that unfolds in this series.  I highly recommend Cinder and its sequels for the science fiction shelf of your classroom library–scoop it up to enjoy before the magic wears off at midnight!

Missing Pieces by Meredith Tate

24903132I love receiving e-mails from students—not the “Is this due tomorrow?” or “Why do I have a zero in PowerSchool?” e-mails—but the ones that are written bleary-eyed, late at night (or sometimes early in the morning) from students who have just finished a book. Recently, Alyssa, one of my Advanced Composition juniors e-mailed me at 10:30pm after finishing Missing Pieces. She wrote:

“Wow, I just finished the book and I am completely shocked! Was definitely not expecting…[Can’t put this in because I don’t want to spoil it!]…I am extremely happy the way it ended! This was most certainly one of my favorite books that I read this year and if any of my friends ask for a recommendation I would without a doubt recommend it.”

As a teacher, finding a book students can connect with is a victory! But in this, case the victory was even sweeter. I grew up with Meredith Tate, the author of Missing Pieces, and even as children playing in the sandbox at our tiny four-classroom elementary school, Meredith knew how to weave a story.

Missing Pieces is the story of Tracey (Trace) and Piren, two best friends growing up in a dystopian world where they are matched with their spouses at six years old based on genetic compatibility. Despite Trace and Piren’s undeniable friendship and eventual attraction, they are paired with different partners. It is a fight between fate and free will.

While the plot might sound generic, resembling the many dystopian romances novels we’ve seen lately, Meredith succeeds in weaving together a distinctly unique story. Trace and Piren are flawed and frustrating and real. They live in a world of messy mistakes. As a social worker, Meredith doesn’t skirt around issues of alcoholism and abuse—instead she confronts them head-on, addressing the harsh, debilitating nature of addiction. I love that this book doesn’t cleanly fit into any distinct genre—it’s a romance, but it isn’t mawkish; it’s categorized as “new adult” but it begins when the protagonist is 14 years old; it’s dystopian yet it distinctly resembles modern society. Despite the numerous questions posed throughout the book (including those in the excerpt below), we learn that life is a series of difficult decisions; it’s the pure beauty of this rawness that makes this book relevant to teenagers.

“What if the one you’re supposed to be with, and the one you want to be with, are two different people? My entire life was mapped out for me before I was born. Is my only choice to silently follow the course already plotted? To blindly accept my future and walk that trail until I die? To smile and pretend everything is okay and I’m happy and in love with my Partner when I’m spiraling downward and drowning in my loneliness? I’m drowning, like in my childhood nightmares. Only this isn’t a nightmare; I can’t wake up from this life.”

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King

17453303John Green says that “A.S. King is one of the best Y.A. writers working today,” and who doesn’t trust everything John Green says?  (Except for when you trust him for 246 entire pages, and then your trust is shattered, and you ruin a book with your tears, but I digress.)

Having fallen madly in love with A.S. King’s writing during Everybody Sees the Ants, I have been waiting for my students to return Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future to my library so I could read it.  Without ever having booktalked it, its catchy cover caught students’ eyes and enticed them to dive right in.

Finally, yesterday, I spotted it on the shelf and took it outside in the sun with my class to begin reading.  Surrounded by seniors mere weeks before their graduation, I was in the perfect setting to immerse myself in Glory’s story, which takes place over two weeks bracketing her high school graduation.  She’s a photographer for the yearbook, keeping herself distant from her peers by hiding behind a camera.  Her only “friend” is her neighbor Ellie, who’s lived beside her ever since Glory’s mother committed suicide thirteen years ago.  Ellie doesn’t understand the worry Glory has that she’ll end up like her mother–and Glory is terrified of, dreading, trapped by, her own uncertain future.

That all changes after a wild night, after which Glory and Ellie can suddenly see the future.  Glory begins to record these transmissions, in which, upon eye contact with anyone, she can see the actions of their distant ancestors and descendants.  The glimpses of the future reveal a future American Civil War, the complete reversal of feminism, and a tangled web of people she knows mixed up in all of this.

“We were fed onto the stage like machine parts.  We were a conveyor belt of future.  We were an assembly line of tomorrow.  We were handed our diplomas and stood to face the audience and they were asked not to clap until the end, but some did anyway. … I stood and faced the crowd and heard a static of epic proportions.  Chatter of a thousand infinities all at once.”

Deciding to chronicle her transmissions through a scrapbook modeled after one of her mother’s creation, Glory writes her own “History of the Future,” and it’s bleak.  As the novel progresses, the darkness of the future becomes more certain, but so does Glory’s understanding of herself–a trade-off she’s not sure how to handle.

With beautiful language, dark humor, powerful lessons, and themes of mystery, love, redemption, friendship, and foreboding–all set against the backdrop of high school graduation–I can see now why this book is never on my shelves.  I’ll be happy as it continues to remain in the hands of teens getting a refresher on feminism, individuality, and the pursuit of happiness.

“Sounds so convenient, right? Me not having a mom and my dad being all great about it and stuff.  But it wasn’t like that.  The air was tense.  We still had no oven.  My cobbler still tasted like radiation, no matter how much ice cream I piled onto it.  I could feel the secrets in the soil here. … Something was about to sprout and grow from that soil.  I could feel it the same as I could see the mourning dove into infinity.”

Hey, Do You Want to Hear a Good Poem? #poeminyourpocket

What makes a good poem?

I like to ask my students this question. They usually fumble with an answer.

That is what makes reading poetry with students rewarding. Eventually, even the hardest teenage heart will come to at least appreciate the complexity of language — maybe she’ll never appreciate the beauty of it, but she will appreciate the craft of the poet.

Sharing good poems with students on a regular basis proved a hard goal for me this year. (Better than last; not as well as I wanted.)

One go-to book is Garrison Keillor’s collection of Good Poems, as Heard on the Writer’s Almanac. It is a must for every English classroom. My wish list includes two other volumes:  Good Poems for Hard Times and Good Poems: American Places. 

I especially like how Keillor sets the tone of the selection with poetic lines in the introduction that describe what makes a good poem:

Stickiness, memorability, is one sign of a good poem. You hear it and a day later some of it is still there in the brainpan.

What makes a poem memorable is its narrative line. A story is easier to remember than a puzzle.

[Poems] surprise us with clear pictures of the familiar.

And this beautiful paragraph, an epigraph for Emily Dickinson, really:

To see poetry finding an existence that its maker never imagined, visit Emily Dickinson’s grave in Amherst. Here lies the white-gowned virgin goddess, in a cluster of Dickinsons, under a stone that says “Called Back,” and here, weekly, strangers come as grieving family, placing pebbles on her big stone, leaving notes to her folded into tiny squares, under small stones. Dickinson was a famous recluse who camped in the shadows in the upstairs hall and eavesdropped on visitors, and now there are few graves in America so venerated as hers. She is mourned continually because the quickness and vitality of her poems maker her contemporary, and when you make flies buzz and horses turn their heads and you declaim Wild Nights! Wild Nights! and give hope some feathers, you are going to have friends in this world for as long as English is read.

I just love that, and Dickinson isn’t even my favorite.

I am finding favorites though. So far, my favorites are the poets I know in person: Dawn Potter, and  Meg Kearney.

My students need the chance to find favorites, and that is why I must expose them to good poems. Reading aloud poems on a regular basis has the same effect as talking about books regularly.

Today is Poem in Your Pocket Day.  Will you participate?

Because I know I need to be more consistent with poetry, and even though we are in the middle of a giant writing project, my students and I paused this week and talked poetry. We read and questioned and laughed and loved being immersed in beautiful language.

We pulled the poetry books off the shelves, (I only have about 15, so far, so we had to share) and we wrote out poems on pretty paper to put in our pockets. I challenged students to share their poems throughout the day.

Some balked.

Some said sure

but meant no way.

Others will follow my lead:

“Hey, do you want to hear a good poem?”

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Anatomy of a Misfit by Andrea Portes

18340210This young adult novel was recommended to me by a fellow teacher of reading workshop who said it was immensely popular in her room. I downloaded it on my Nook and began to read it late one night before bed, and stayed up all night to finish.  I laughed on one page, clenched the covers in tension on the next, then cried, then laughed again, thanks to Portes’ masterful narrative skill.

The narrator, Annika, was a unique take on the typical YA protagonist, describing herself as the “third most popular girl in school,” whose Romanian father she calls “Count Chocula.”  Still, Annika finds herself in a number of classic YA conflicts–torn between two boys (Logan, who is unique and thoughtful, but social suicide, and Jared, who is magnetically attractive and popular) and torn between two friend groups (Becky Vilhauer and her evil “mean girls”-esque clique and the victims of that clique’s hurtful gossip).  Annika authentically struggles with these choices in a way I think most teenagers would, so this felt much more real than a John Green book, for example, to me.

As Annika’s unique voice kept me laughing and intrigued, the story grew darker, spiraling into a series of painful climaxes, as the book progressed.  While reflecting on one of these situations, Annika writes:

We tried to be less self-involved.  We tried to look up from our dumb obsessions and notice other people.  We tried to be open, for once.  We tried not to be just another vaguely racist family.  We tried to be enlightened.  We tried to be good.  We tried to be all of the things…we are not.

This beautiful excerpt reflects not just on Portes’ cut-to-the-quick analyses of common situations, but also her writing skill.  My students and I looked at that passage for craft and they created beautiful imitations filled with similar repetitive phrasings.

Portes’ beautiful language made me love this book, but I loved it even more when I read the afterword, which explained the inspiration for the book–Portes’ own high school experience.  Once you read the heart-wrenching conclusion, you’ll understand why I so vastly admire Portes’ blend of autobiography and gorgeous writing skill.


Reel Reading for Real Readers: Winger

ReelReading2Winger by Andrew Smith is another book I kept hearing about. (I’m a little jealous that so many of my teacher friends seem to be way ahead of me in their TBR piles.) I knew I needed to keep this one — like I did Eleanor and Park— and read it before I let my students get their hands on it.

I did not have my own copy, but at #ALAN13 in Boston, after I had the pleasant task of helping Donalyn Miller with her jacket, she gave me a copy from her book stacks. She gave me a copy! 

Surprisingly, I found no book trailers promoting it. However, I did find and read an interesting piece in The New Yorker called “The Awkward Art of Book Trailers,” which made me rethink the value of them at all. Rachel Arons says, quoting Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom:  “Franzen explains—in a tone that is polite but characteristically aggrieved—his “profound discomfort” with having to use moving images to promote the printed word. “To me, the point of a novel is to take you to a still place,” he says. “You can multitask with a lot of things, but you can’t really multitask reading a book … To me, the world of books is the quiet alternative—an ever more desperately needed alternative.”

Hmmm. I might agree with that.

So instead of a trailer today, let’s read a book review. I love this one at TLT: Teen Librarian’s Toolbox, and I’m thinking that a next step in my students’ literary journey is to write their own “professional” reviews. This one will make a good mentor text.

Any thoughts on book trailers? good idea or not?

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