Thursday, October 30, 2014

Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition by Karen Blumenthal

While almost all of our students know what the word “bootleg” means in contemporary slang, few, if any, know of prohibition, the eighteenth amendment, or that Al Capone was born in Brooklyn.  This engaging narrative history begins in 1875 with the birth of Morris Sheppard, later known as The Grandfather of Prohibition, and takes the reader through American history, highlighting key figures in the story like Carrie Nation (Chapter 3), the notorious bar smasher, Al Capone (Chapter 8), infamous gangster, and ending with MADD and Red Ribbon Week.  Throughout, Blumenthal refrains from any final judgement on the “wets” and the “drys,” focusing on the dual messages that “each of us is responsible for our own behavior” and that “the experience of prohibition continues to color our laws, our debates and our personal lives.”  Rich back matter includes a glossary, discussion questions from the author, an interview with the author, additional resources, source notes, acknowledgements and an index.  Recommended for independent reading, as a teaching text for non-fiction ELA units, an enrichment text for American history, and even a book club. .--Jessica Fenster-Sparber

Blumenthal, Karen.  Bootleg:  Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition.  New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2011.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Three Little Words: A Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

Ashley Rhodes-Courter has met the President of the United States, spoken in front of groups of hundreds of people around the country, been published in newspapers and magazines, and appeared on television.  But her start in life was far from auspicious.  After being taken from her drug-addicted mother at the age of three, Ashley spent the next nine years in a series of foster and group homes, some acceptable, a few kind, one run by an abusive, cruel, and manipulative woman.  As Ashley clung to her mother’s promises and her younger brother, the foster care system failed her again and again.  In this memoir, Ashley details her journey in painstaking detail, offering an important glimpse into the many ways that emotional trauma impacts a child’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior.  Three Little Words may be a great match for sophisticated readers interested in personal stories of foster and state care.  Those looking for stories of survivors of abuse may like to know that Rhodes-Courter's account is markedly less sensational than Pelzer's series.  Backmatter includes a helpful guide for reading groups.-- Regan Schwartz

Rhodes-Courter, Ashley.  Three Little Words.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009. Print.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Vicious: True Stories by Teens About Bullying

Vicious: True Stories by Teens About Bullying Edited by Hope Vanderberg

Bullying seems to be a universal experience to the students I’ve gotten to know where I work.  Whether they’ve been bullied, been a bully, or been a bystander, the topic is never unfamiliar.  This collection of writings from teenagers and young adults will let any reader who has experienced bullying know that he or she is not alone.  One of the collection’s strengths is its authenticity; these are the true voices and experiences of contemporary survivors.  The stories are accessible to developing teen readers and their brevity may appeal to both student readers and their teachers.  Recommended for independent reading for teens and educators looking for short stories addressing bullying.  Diverse sub-themes include sexual harassment (“Can I Holla Atcha” by Allajah Young”), LGBTQ (“Gay on the Block” by Jeremiyah Spears and “A Place to Belong” by Lavell Pride), the immigrant experience (“I Showed My Enemies-- and Hurt My Friends, Too” by Elie Elius), and multiple perspectives from foster homes, treatment centers, and residential facilities (like “Standing My Ground” by Xavier Reyes).--Jessica Fenster-Sparber

Vanderberg, Hope (editor).  Vicious: True Stories by Teens About Bullying.  Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, 2012.

Youth Communication provides assorted stories from this collection (and more) on the topic of bullying here.  Titles displaying an apple icon include lesson plan and discussion ideas for teachers.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

While desperately trying to discover the secrets of the universe outside of himself, a boy called Ari stumbles upon the secrets within himself. Ari is a typical young teenage boy dealing with the pain and glory of youth, just as all teenagers do, when he finds an unlikely confidante in another teen, Dante, at a local pool. Dante and Ari set out to discover what the world has to offer them and encounter some of its dangers along the way. Through the struggles and joy of their friendship, the two uncover deeper truths about the world, themselves, and what they mean to each other. I would highly recommend this wonderfully captivating book to teens, male or female, who are also trying to discover themselves, the world around them, and how to navigate it all.--Jenny Caliendo

Teachers and librarians may want to note that this is a significant LGBTQ book, addressing class differences, Latino identity, and queer identity in a way that is non-threatening to a teen reader.  Vamos A Leer has put together a teaching guide for this novel here.--Jessica Fenster-Sparber

Jenny Caliendo is a special education educator at Passages Academy's Belmont site.  She enjoys co-teaching ELA classes.  Jenny is also an author as well as a talented songwriter and musician and can be seen and heard performing at Belmont on special occasions.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

On a Clear Day by Walter Dean Myers

What will the Bronx be like in 2035?  In this posthumously published novel, Walter Dean Myers takes readers on a journey into a vision of the near future.  That vision includes cars that drive themselves, a concentration of power in the hands of a few, the rise of gated communities, microchips embedded in humans at birth, and a spunky protagonist named Dahlia.  A fifteen-year-old math whiz whose mother recently passed away, Dahlia lives on her own in a house with neighbors she considers family in a western part of the Bronx.  What does Dahlia need to know to determine whether she and other bright teens can make a difference while societies around the world seem to be heading towards total atomization and increasingly giving up autonomy to the rule of a few corporations?  This new novel will be of interest to fans of the late, great Myers, as well as readers interested in dystopian futures and the role of teenagers in averting disaster by becoming engaged citizens.  With this text Myers seems to have taken all of his contemporary concerns about young people and woven them into a novel with his tried-and-true structure.  Seasoned readers will find his experiment with a teenaged girl’s voice to be of interest.  We eagerly await students’ verdicts. --Jessica Fenster-Sparber

Myers, Walter Dean.  On A Clear Day.  New York: HarperCollins, 2014.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Chess Rumble by G. Neri

Chess Rumble is the story of a young teen named Marcus who, after the death of his sister and the absence of his father, finds himself unable to cope with his anger.  This leads to Marcus often lashing out at those around him at the slightest provocation.  His uncontrollable fits of anger develop into displays of aggressive behavior, fights at school, picking on his two younger brothers and, at one point, he almost strikes his mother.  Looking for a way to help Marcus deal with his anger, the school principal introduces Marcus to a chess program.  There, he meets ex-convict CM, who teaches Marcus that it’s more beneficial to keep your emotions under control and remain calm even in the worst situations. The text, which is written in one or two columns per page, is accompanied by black and white illustrations which help bring the characters to life.  Thanks to the illustrator, Jesse Joshua Watson, emotions can easily be read on the characters’ faces.  

Chess Rumble can be a good way to get students thinking about anger issues and may be useful as an introduction to the game of chess. Readers of Autobiography of my Dead Brother and Yummy should give Chess Rumble a chance; all three titles deal with living in the hood, dealing with gang life and death, and all contain black and white illustrations. --Claudio Leon

Neri, Greg, and Jesse Joshua Watson. Chess Rumble. New York, NY: Lee & Low, 2007. Print.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Dogalog by Dr. Bruce Fogle

“Miss, what kind of dog is it that has those wrinkles/a purple tongue/lion fur/any number of interesting or odd characteristics?” These are all questions I have been asked a surprising number of times.  Every time, I am grateful that I have Dogalog to turn to.  With over 400 breeds profiled in full-color, two-page spreads, it is an engaging and informative resource for dog-lovers and those curious about dogs.  Each profile includes a full-body photograph captioned with details about the breed’s physical characteristics, an overview with a brief history of the breed, and a sidebar with key facts.  The dogs are organized into broad categories, such as terriers and working breeds, which can make finding a specific breed tricky.  Luckily, there is a comprehensive index and table of contents.  A great resource on its own, this volume is also a valuable tool for teaching the features and structure of nonfiction texts. --Regan Schwartz

Fogle, Bruce. Dogalog. New York: DK Publishing, 2000.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Who Am I Without Him? Short Stories About Girls and the Boys in Their Lives by Sharon G. Flake

Engaging short stories written in African American voices for teens are always in demand and not always easy to find.  Enter Sharon G. Flake, author of The Skin I’m In and Money Hungry, with this collection geared toward girls, originally suggested to me by my colleague Chrystal Stewart.  While this book makes for an enjoyable read from start to finish, three stories recommend themselves to ELA faculty.  “Don’t Be Disrespecting Me,”  one of the collection’s few stories written with third-person narration, would serve as an accessible lesson on characterization and offers a good match with a Venn diagram or other compare and contrast  graphic organizers. This tale meaningfully contrasts two teen males, Erin and Noodles, who are friends striving to make it through high school in the face of poverty and who approach their frustrations differently.  Another stand-out is the last story, written in epistolary form and entitled “A Letter to My Daughter.”  Articulated in the voice of an absent father returned from prison after a decade or so, the narrator speaks to his daughter from a distance about her experiences becoming a young woman.  Full of admonitions, this story pairs interestingly with Lupe Mendez’s “What Should Run in the Mind of Caballeros” and Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” for students learning to think critically about voice, form, and purpose.  Chrystal additionally favors the collection’s first story, “So I Ain’t No Good Girl.” This book works well as an independent read for middle school and younger high school girls, but the true beauty of a collection like this one is that students are likely to become motivated to read it on their own after reading one or two of its stories with an engaging teacher. --Jessica Fenster-Sparber

Flake, Sharon G.  Who Am I Without Him?  New York: Jump at the Sun, 2007.


Click here for the author's discussion guide to the book found on her website.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

Sanger Rainsford is a celebrated hunter from New York City.  He travels the world in search of big game.  When he falls off a yacht in the middle of the Caribbean, he swims for the closest shore and discovers a single palatial home built on an unfamiliar island surrounded by craggy rocks.  He is given sanctuary by the home’s singular owner, General Zaroff, who recognizes him immediately and invites him to rest and dine with him.  Over a glass of port, the two men discuss their shared hobby of hunting and the question of “what is the most dangerous game?”  This well-loved short story is useful for teaching setting, character, conflict and foreshadowing, and this edition may interest teachers because it is an unabridged short story bound into a single volume.  Interesting language abounds and readers who persevere through the start of the story are likely to be hooked by page 16.  Offering a great deal of white space, a four-page analysis of the story, and another four pages of back matter dedicated to the author’s biography, including images, this series is packaged for English teachers. The design and layout of the text can be viewed here.  Lesson plan ideas for teaching this classic text from ELA Common Core Lesson Plans can be viewed here.  Currently available at our Belmont site.--Jessica Fenster-Sparber

Connell, Richard.  The Most Dangerous Game.  Mankato: Creative Education, 2011.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream

The journey to become a doctor is not an easy path for anyone, let alone for a young person growing up in a crime-ridden neighborhood surrounded by negative influences. Yet three best friends facing those exact challenges succeeded in obtaining medical degrees. How?

Drs. Sampson Davis, George Jenkins and Rameck Hunt met as students in Newark, New Jersey. Told in alternating voices in each chapter, each of the three shares his story with the reader from childhood to the present (as of 2002, the time of publication). While each man has a different story to tell (one was arrested and spent time in juvenile detention, another managed to stay out of fights and avoid conflict throughout his childhood), the common thread is that they worked incredibly hard throughout high school, college and medical school to get to where they are now. Each reached points where he felt he might give up -- whether it was problems in his family, academic failure, financial hardships or just plain stress, and his friends were there to support him and encourage him to get back on track. This message is an important one for our students. Young people are frequently lectured on the negative effects of peer pressure and how destructive it can be to “hang out with the wrong crowd.” This memoir sheds light on the flip side of that pressure, and the opportunities that come from surrounding oneself with positive thinkers and ambitious, hard-working friends.  --Anja Kennedy

Davis, Sampson, George Jenkins, and Rameck Hunt.  The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream.  New York: Penguin.  2002.  Print.