Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Heart Most Worthy by Siri Mitchell

The year is 1918. The place is Boston. World War I is raging, and three immigrant girls are struggling to find themselves. Julietta, strong and bold, must choose between true love and exciting love. Annamaria, quiet and obedient, falls for a boy from the other side of the street and must choose between love and her parents’ prejudice. Luciana, alone and carrying a secret, must choose between love and safety. Working together at a dress shop, the three girls’ lives are woven together in a historical tale of prejudices, loyalties, and both the love of a man and of God.

This is the first historical fiction book I’ve read by Siri Mitchell, and I enjoyed it. Boston is my favorite city in America, and I was happy to see it as the setting for this tale. I loved the Italian culture that filled the pages. Although there are myriad characters in the book, they are all well-developed and accurately portray the women of that generation. Each girl’s story was unique but shared the common theme of finding love despite all obstacles. The side storylines of Madame Fortier’s lost love and the political and social issues of the time deepened the overall theme.

Although the ending was predictable, the journey there was enjoyable. I will definitely check out the other historical books by Siri Mitchell.

I received this book from Bethany House for the purpose of reviewing.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

M6 Blushing Expressions of Love in Poems and Letters

Janeczko, Paul B. 2004. Blushing. New York: Orchard Books. ISBN: 0439530563.
     In this collection of poems, Janeczko organizes the poems to follow the rhythm of love: Beginning of Love, In Love, Alone in Love, the End of Love, and Remembering Love. The poets represented range from the past (Shakespeare and Bradstreet) to the current (Angelou and Merwin), representing the timelessness of love and the feelings associated with having and with losing it.

     As Janeczko writes in the introduction, “only the intensity of poetry could convey the intensity of what I was feeling, of what I had experienced” (x). While prose has more words to express the feelings and thoughts of a character, the brevity of poetry often speaks louder. The author chooses the style, the rhythm, and even the length and spacing to express an exact emotion or feeling. Each poem is unique just as each love is unique yet similar.

     The combination of old poems with new ones bridges a gap in poetry and thus in poetry lessons. With the common theme of love, teachers and librarians can pair read a poem by a nineteenth century poet and one from recent years. For example, “Time Does not Bring Relief” by Edna St. Vincent Millay’s powerful final lines and “Separation by W.S. Merwin are written in different time periods but reflect the same sorrow of lost love.

“Time Does not Bring Relief”

And entering with relief some quiet place

Where never fell his foot or shone his face

I say, “There is no memory of him here!”

And so stand stricken, so remembering him.


Your absence has gone through me

Like thread through a needle

Everything I do is stitched with color.

     The book is a beautiful look at love, both the passion and the pain of giving your heart to another. It’s a great resource for a teacher or librarian to have to pull poems for class discussion or analysis. For poetry lovers, reading the book is like reuniting all your old friends (Langston Hughes, John Donne) with your new friends (Angelou and Lady Sono no Omi Ikuha).

M6 Out of the Dust and Turtle in Paradise

Hesse, Karen. 1997. Out of the Dust. New York: Scholastic. ISBN: 0590371258.
Holm, Jennifer L. 2010. Turtle in Paradise. New York: Random House. ISBN: 9780375836886.
     In 1935, America was in the middle of a depression. Two girls, Billie Joe and Turtle, live in different parts of the country, but they both struggle to find their place in a world that is uncertain and scary. In Turtle in Paradise, Turtle is sent to live with her mom’s sister in Florida since her mother cannot afford to take care of her. There, the only child becomes a part of a big family full of mischievous boys who have their own babysitting service where they are paid in candy. Through funny situations, Turtle comes out of her shell and realizes that even when money is a rare commodity, family is even more valuable.

     Across the country, Billie Jo is fighting her own battles in the free verse novel Out of the Dust. After a terrible accident that takes the lives of her mother and unborn brother, Billie Jo has become a stranger in her own home, afraid to talk to her father or face her own feelings. Through music, Billie Jo finds healing and a way back to her father and to herself.

     While both of these books are moving tales of young girls finding themselves during a difficult time in American history, they are even more powerful when read together. The common themes of the Great Depression (great historical depiction of the harsh reality of life then), family, and survival are elegantly written and pack an emotional punch. Turtle in Paradise is a Bluebonnet nominee for the 2011-2012 school year. Because of its nomination, thousands of kids across Texas will read this book next school year, and it’s a perfect opportunity for teachers and librarians to pair read (which is on state tests) the two novels. Literature circles as extension of a research project on the Great Depression would work well with these books. After reading the books, the two circles could compare historical information from the book as follow through with their own research on the time period.

     While the two girls are in different parts of the country, but their feelings echo one another. In Turtle in Paradise, Turtle writes, “My heart swells like a sponge. Maybe the real treasure has been right here on Curry Lane the whole time—people who love Mama and me. A home” (177). Billie finds herself as well in the poem titled “Music” .

“I’m getting to know the music again.

And it is getting to know me.

We sniff each other’s armpits,

and inside each other’s ears,

and behind each other’s necks.

We are both confident, and a little sassy.

And I know now that all the time I was trying to get

out of the dust,

the fact is,

what I am,

I am because of the dust.

And what I am is good enough.

Even for me” (222).

M6 Angst!

Planetkiki. 2001. Angst. New York: Workman Publishing Company. ISBN: 0761123830.

     Anyone who has spent time with teenage girls knows they ride a roller coaster ride of emotions each day. Angst is a compilation of those feelings into one book, ranging from the angry to the smitten. was (the website was no longer active when I searched) a place where teen girls from all over the world could share their poetry, thoughts, and feelings. In addition to the poems, the reference section contains definitions of various types of poetry, frameworks for readers to try writing their own poems, and a short biography of each writer.

     The poems are what is expected from young writers: lots of rhyming words that sometimes developed into a deep thought but often remained surface-level rants. “It’s stupid; it’s dumb/ Why must I always feel this way? I can’t feel now, I’m numb/ And it starts over every day” (86). In addition, with online postings, the chance of someone plagiarizing is high, like the poem “Me” having an insert “explaining” how it is based on a poem “Me” by Jewel Kilcher, which when analyzed reveals it’s the same poem with a few words or phrases changed. However, I think that’s the point—that writing, no matter how undeveloped, is to be admired. Putting their feelings about boys, friends, and family on paper for the world to see takes strength. The writing skill can be developed, but vulnerability and the strength to show it can’t be taught.

The poem “Life Sucks” exemplifies the sentiments of most of the writers in the book.

“It’s been way too long for me to stop

To think about what is going on in me

All I know is….

It sucks

You suck

We all Suck

Life Sucks” (29).

     The book could be presented to a class of reluctant writers who need to see that feelings are for expressing and everyone has something to say and to share. The poems are not geared for deep discussion of lofty ideas, but they are inspirational to young writers who may need to see that teens can have their poetry published. When I originally picked this book for reviewing, I thought the website would be a great place for a class to submit their own poems, so I was saddened to see the website was gone. Teens should have a place to share their writing.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Max on Life by Max Lucado

     Max on Life is a compilation of questions sent to Max Lucado throughout his years of ministry and answers. The questions range from those wanting to grow spiritually to those questioning the Christian faith. The questions are organized into topical categories including hope, hurt, help, him/her, home, haves/have-nots, and the hereafter. Included in each response is a personal explanation with scripture references. The book also includes a topical index so that readers can search for a question and answer based on their own questions as well as a scripture index for readers to read and study the scriptures for themselves.

     Max Lucado is a gentle truth giver….an example of “speaking the truth in love” like scripture instructs believers. His answers are based on Biblical scripture, emphasizing the core of the Christian faith: belief that God loved us enough to send His Son to die for our sins and that Christians should continue in His love. While many Christians argue and fight over interpretation of scriptures and doctrine, this book is a simple yet poignant reminder that nothing matters except love. This book is a great read for someone new to the faith since many questions new believers face are answered here as well as anyone wanting a book to savor. The book can be read quickly or one or two questions a day, using the answer and the scriptures given as a jumpstart to personal study.

This book was given to me by Booksneeze for the purpose of reviewing.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Billion Reasons Why by Kristin Billerbeck

     Eight years ago, Katie McKenna proposed to the man she loved passionately only to be turned down. Fleeing to California to escape her humiliation, Katie strives to become what she feels is expected of her: working with special needs children, attending church faithfully, following the “church” rules, and settling for a life with a man she doesn’t love. Then Luc DeForges, the man who broke her heart, walks back into her life, determined to convince Katie to come back to New Orleans under the pretense of performing at his brother’s wedding. Behind his ruse is a plan to make Katie fall in love with him again. Will Katie settle for a life that makes sense on paper or follow her heart even if it means risking everything?

     Being from Louisiana, I like the setting of New Orleans. It’s the perfect place to have characters who love the 40’s (even though I knew very few of the movie and music references that filled the pages) and who are full of passion for dancing and singing. Katie is a likeable character, but it was hard to root for Luc when it took him eight years to chase down the woman he loved. Overall, their story is a fun read even if they won’t go down as my favorite characters. (I’m a character-driven reader, so if I don’t love the characters, I usually don’t love the book.)

     A Billion Reasons Why delves into a topic that I think more Christians need to think about: living by rules or living by love. Following Christ doesn’t mean not embracing fun and romance. Marrying Dexter, the solid guy who sends weekly flowers, would be sensible but boring. Marrying Luc would mean risking her heart, but she would feel alive again. The book gave me things to think about without being preachy, which is one reason I love Kristin Billerbeck’s books.

Are you kidding me? Sweet Valley Confidential

Warning: Spoilers included!

Are you kidding me? That’s what I said throughout this book. I devoured SVH books when I was a teenager. I owned every single one. You would think reading every book multiple times would have given me some insight to the characters, but I guess I didn’t know them at all!

I expected over-the-top storylines, but the plot seems like the author picked random stuff out of a hat. Steven suddenly figures out he’s gay after his epic loves with Trisha, Cara, and then Billie. Yes, I know people come out later in life, but the SVH books had several gay characters. But never a hint that Steven was gay. Jessica falls in love with Todd and chooses him over her twin? Elizabeth is maid of honor for the wedding after a few weeks of “forgiving” Todd and Jessica? There was no development or buildup for these sudden, drastic changes to the characters, especially when the author had years and hundreds of books to develop the characters. I also didn’t like the political push for gay marriage and the comment about Enid being “arrogant and extremely right wing” since the books are pleasure readings. I don’t need to hear the author’s political rants.

The book flip flops between point of view and time. Thankfully, the older memories are in italics, but the switch of narrative was confusing at first. The grammar errors are obvious and the writing lacks thought. (Those are things I expected from SVH and could have put up with if the story was good.) The plot jumps through parts that should be explored—more groundwork to why Jessica and Todd fell for each other would have perhaps helped the reader understand how Jessica could betray her sister. Then other parts, like Elizabeth writing about the play, dragged on.

I do like the growth of Elizabeth in this book. She grows up—from a wimp to a strong woman. I have to say I like how they put Elizabeth with Bruce. That was a nice surprise.

I expected far-fetched storylines. I expected poor writing. I also expected the story to reflect the characters I knew and loved....big mistake.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

M5 This is Just to Say (A LS 5663 Review)

Sidman, Joyce. 2007. This is Just to Say. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN: 9780618616800.

     This collection of poems features the authentic writing of students. The book opens with poems of apology and ends with poems of forgiveness. The topics range from the silly (a game of kickball) to heartbreaking (Jewel’s poem to her father who walked out on the family). The range captures the interest of intermediate aged kids, who still love to be carefree and silly but are also dealing with serious topics like death and crushes.

     The book is unique because each writer’s voice is unique. Some are long and flowery while others are succinct and to the point. The variety pulls the reader into the different emotions. The pictures are just as quirky as the poems and the kids who wrote them. There isn’t a note from the illustrator, but it would be interesting to know if the kids who wrote the poem had any say in the picture for their poem.

     It’s hard to pick a poem that should be shared with a class because I think the book as a whole is so important. It demonstrates that kids CAN write poetry. The custodian, the school secretary, students’ parents, and even students’ siblings contribute to the book. Poetry is for everyone, and this book is a visual motivation for reluctant poetry writers. I will share two of my favorites that I think embody the idea of the book’s title: apology and forgiveness.

“How Slow-Hand Lizard Died”

I stole him.

Took him home in my pocket.

Felt the pulse beating

in his soft green neck.

Had no place good to put him.

A shoebox.

He got cold, I think.

Watched his life wink out,

his bright eye turn to mud.

Brought him back,

stiff as an old glove.

Hid him in the bottom of the cage.

Left the money on Mrs. Merz’s desk.

(Stole that, too).

Won’t touch the new lizard.

Don’t’ like to touch



          By Anonymous

The response: “Ode to Slow-Hand”

The way his heart beat in his throat

The way his toes whispered on our hands

Los perdonamos

His skin: rough green cloth

The color of new leaves

Los perdonamos

His belly: soft as an old balloon

His tongue: lightning’s flicker

Los perdonamos

The sad way he left us

The sad way you feel

Los perdonamos

We forgive you

          By Mrs. Merz’s class

The pairing of the poems gives a class a tool for discussion. The poems go together, but the tone and the flow are different. Each set of poems is a wonderful tool for teaching style and for drawing out a writer’s voice.

M5 Messing Around on the Monkey Bars (A LS 5663 Review)

Franco, Betsy. 2009. Messing Around on the Monkey Bars. Massachusetts: Candlewick Press. ISBN: 978-0-7636-3174-1.
What a fun book! This collection of nineteen poems tells about a kid’s day at school. Ranging from the classroom to the bus ride, the poems highlight the daily activities of school in an energetic way. Students will enjoy reading this whole book of performance poetry. Broken up into “voices”, students are assigned a part to read and some lines require both to read aloud. Each part is a different font (normal, bold, bolder) to make each reader’s lines clear. While the poems could be read solo, the words are clearly meant to be squealed and shouted by students performing for their peers or parents. The words are simple enough for elementary students to read with ease yet share the feeling of a kid who forgot the report was due (“Animal Reports”) and another who is racing to the front of the line after recess (“Me and Joe Lining up after Recess”). The idea of having students read together builds a cadence to reading as the struggling readers can be imitate the more fluent reader. The rhyming words are not sing-songy, but they help the nervous reader quickly find the beat of the poem. The bright pictures only add to the feeling of excitement about school.

The whole book should be shared with students. The brevity of the poem allows for many different groups to participate in the performance, and more than one poem could be performed in a day without taking too much time. “Anatomy Class” is a must-share for an ESL or bilingual class. English is a HARD language to learn, especially with its idioms, homophones, and colloquialisms. This poem is a great springboard for a lesson about figurative and literal language.

     “Anatomy Class”

The chair has


The clock,

a face.

The kites have

long and twirly tails.

The tacks have


The books have


The toolbox has

a set of nails.

Our shoes have


the marbles,


The wooden desk has

legs and seat.

The cups have


My watch has


The classroom rulers all have


Heads, arms, hands, nails, spines, legs, feet, tails, face, lips, tongues, eyes.

What a surprise!

Is our classroom alive?

Although I do not have this book in my library currently, I have written the title down to be ordered next year. It's a must-have!

M5 Seeing Emily (A LS 5663 Review)

Wong, Joyce Lee. 2005. Seeing Emily. New York: Amulet Books. ISBN: 0-8109-5757-4.

     Sixteen year old Emily has always done what is expected of her. She works hard, stays out of trouble, and gets along well with her parents. After meeting a new guy at school, Emily decides that like her drawings and paintings, she would like to be a blank canvas, ready to be designed differently. However, when Nick tries to get her to become someone she isn’t, Emily becomes confused as to who she really is. A trip to her parents’ homeland of Taiwan, Emily finds out who she really is.

     The beauty of this novel is the metaphors. Emily’s poetry often compares her feelings to that of animals in a poignant way. “I imagined I was a cat, her eyes shining as she watches a goldfish/ that shimmers on the floor” (Wong 12). The imagery is detailed and moving. During the course of the story, Emily is working on a mural for her school. The mascot is a tiger, so many references are made to the tiger and its prey, paralleling Nick and Emily’s relationship and her own struggle to find herself. While the comparisons are clear, a teen reader would not feel overwhelmed with “lecturing” by the morale of the story. “Taking Flight” and the following poem “The Dance” cut to the heart of the matter: a tiger chasing a monkey and Nick forcing Emily to be someone she is not. These two poems could be a pair reading for high school students, comparing the poem about the animals to the one about a relationship that doesn’t feel right. Many students struggle with writing metaphors or similes without using clich├ęs, and these two poems balance each other perfectly.

     A part of “Taking Flight”

With a rustle of leaves

and a graceful leap

to another tree,

the monkey swings herself away,

disappearing into the green.

Even after she’s gone

her screams echo back

so raucous and wild

they startle

a flock of birds. (178)

     A part of “The Dance”

Even the blessedly hot

water shooting out

from the shower head,

beating down loud

against the glass walls,

couldn’t drown out

the words,

my geisha,


My geisha. (181)

     In addition to discussing the rich language, the topic of fitting in is always timely with teens. They struggle to find their place, and this book examines a Chinese American girl's road to self-discovery.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Always the Baker Never the Bride by Sandra D. Bricker

    I had been told by several friends that this book was amazing. It has the best title. :) I was so excited to read it, and I must admit I was a bit disappointed. The book is good, but it didn't live up to what I had expected. I enjoyed the idea of a diabetic baker, a hotel catering to weddings, the "separated" parents reuniting. The storylines were great ideas, but some weren't developed enough for my liking. There were too many GOOD characters who deserved more time (time that was spent sharing wedding tips and recipes). I would have loved to see this as a series with different characters' storylines developed a little more.
     Overall, this is a good book, and I will check out other books by this author.