Sunday, October 31, 2010

Newspaper Blackout by Austin Kleon

Armed with a newspaper and a magic marker, Austin Kleon makes the process of writing poetry more about chiseling away instead of starting from scratch. I am a huge fan of found poetry and have my students create found and headline poems every April during National Poetry Month. What I always find when students perform these exercises is that at first they think the assignment is just for fun, but then end up creating something really profound.

The idea is the same in Newspaper Blackout. An otherwise mundane newspaper article is now suddenly something really profound.

My only criticism of this book is that sometimes the poems were a little hard to follow and the flow of the poem was stifled because your brain was too busy trying to translate the order of everything.

Check out the book trailer here:

Newspaper Blackout by Austin Kleon
Published: April 2010 by Harper Perennial
Pages: 224
Genre: Poetry
Audience: Adults

IMM (2)

In My Mailbox is a feature hosted by Kristi, The Story Siren

This week's Library Loot:

Picture Books:
Unlovable by Dan Yaccarino
A Pirate's Guide to First Grade by James Preller/ Illustrated by Greg Ruth
Ubiquitous by Joyce Sidman/Illustrated by Beckie Prange

The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

Cooking Green by Kate Heyhoe

This week in my mailbox:
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins (ARC requested from publisher)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halo by Alexandra Adornetto

Goodreads summary:
Nothing much happens in the sleepy town of Venus Cove. But everything changes when three angels are sent from heaven to protect the town against the gathering forces of darkness: Gabriel, the warrior; Ivy, the healer; and Bethany, a teenage girl who is the least experienced of the trio. They work hard to conceal their true identity and, most of all, their wings.

But the mission is threatened when the youngest angel, Bethany, is sent to high school and falls in love with the handsome school captain, Xavier Woods. Will she defy the laws of Heaven by loving him? Things come to a head when the angels realize they are not the only supernatural power in Venus Cove. There′s a new kid in town and he′s charming, seductive and deadly. Worst of all, he′s after Beth.

OK, I'm going to start with a backhanded compliment. Given that Alexandra Adornetto is only 18 years old, she is rather gifted with words. But she hasn't yet learned to harness that gift. She's still a bit unwieldy with them, carelessly throwing them around all slap-dash.

This story felt like a rip-off of Twilight but with angels instead of vampires. There was absolutely nothing substantive to the relationship between Bethany and Xavier other than having to read over and over again for 480 pages how beautiful they were.

This is a passage from p. 426 during a high-crisis moment in the book:

I woke in the middle of the night, frightened by a dream I couldn't remember. Xavier lay beside me. He looked so beautiful when he was asleep, his perfect lips slightly parted, his hair tousled on the pillow, his smooth, tanned chest rising and falling gently as he breathed.

Really? Really? You're going to go there? At the height of tension and anxiety in the story, you're going to talk about his perfectly tanned chest?

Another huge criticism I have is that if you're going to write a fantasy novel, then you need to find a way to make readers believe in the world you've created. That is the challenge of writing fantasy. It's easy to make up another world. What's hard is taking other people there with you. When I read Harry Potter, for those moments I am reading the book, I believe there is a place called Hogwarts and that Voldemort is trying to kill Harry. JK Rowling transports us into that world. But Adornetto never allowed me to leave this world and enter hers. The entire time I was reading this book I wasn't buying it. The idea of an angel falling in love with a human is an intriguing premise for a plot, and perhaps in the hands of a more mature author it would have worked, but this book felt completely superficial and unbelievable.
I will not be continuing with the series when the next book comes out. Maybe sappy girls of 14 or 15 will fall for the "romance" in this book, but I certainly didn't.

Halo by Alexandra Adornetto
Published: August 2010
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Pages: 484
Genre: fantasy
Audience: YA/Lovers of bad romance novels
Disclosure: Finished copy received for review

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Pirate's Guide to First Grade by James Preller

Anyone who reads this book aloud without a pirate voice should be arrested.

This book is told from the perspective of a first grader who sees the world through the lens of a pirate. The illustrations are ingenious - with life in first grade being in full color, and the pirate daydreams faded into the background. I'm thinking I need to purchase a copy of this book to read to my students on International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Too bad it's already passed by this year.

Even if you're not in first grade, you'd be hard pressed to find a student who won't be entertained by this charming book.

A Pirate's Guide to First Grade by James Peller/Illustrations by Greg Ruth
Published: July 2010 by Feiwel & Friends
Pages: 48
Genre: Children's picture book

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Unlovable by Dan Yaccarino

I am just a tad bit biased when it comes to reviewing this book because I am a devoted pug owner. So when I came across this book about a pug that is told by the family cat that he is unlovable, I couldn't help but feel the need to shout, "BUT I LOVE YOU!!!!!"

My heart broke for Alfred the pug at the beginning of the story as he banished himself to the backyard so as not to have to hear the cat, the parrot, and even the goldfish declare how unlovable he is.

This is a great book to use with kids to teach lessons about not excluding others and embracing each other's differences. The illustrations are simple but have great impact and emotion, and despite Alfred's empty eyes, they bore into your soul and make you feel extreme empathy for him.

Unlovable by Dan Yaccarino
Published: January 2001 by Henry Holt
Pages: 32
Genre: Children's picture book

Who knew?

I would like to personally thank Kristi, The Story Siren, for doing a feature on her blog called "Dear Story Siren: Publisher Edition" where she contacts a person from a publisher's media department and asks them questions about reviewing their published books. Part of Kristi's questioning revolves around asking for ARCs. Before reading this feature on Kristi's blog, I never thought to personally request an ARC from a publisher. I always assumed that publishers and authors contacted you. What was I thinking? Rookie mistake!

So thanks to Kristi's helpful blog feature, I decided that over the weekend, I would contact my first publisher. I emailed someone from Penguin's children and young adult media department and requested a copy of Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. This book will not hit stores until December, but I have heard such wonderful things about it that I have been DYING to read it. Well today I got my wish. When I arrived home from work, a FedEx padded envelope was sitting on my front porch with this lovely surprise inside:

Thank you Penguin/Dutton Publishing!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating by Ari Weinzwig

Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Michigan is a high-end galleria of food indulgences. They specialize in only the very best products and ingredients. This book is organized well and includes tantalizing recipes at the end of each chapter.

It might appear pretentious to proclaim the merits of purchasing only the very best of every type of food product, but Weinzwig insists that he is not looking for food to be fancy - he just wants it to taste good! That is his thesis for this book and the philosophy behind Zingerman's legacy.

Educational and mouth-watering, this book would be a wonderful addition to any aspiring cook wishing to choose better ingredients for themselves and their family.

Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating by Ari Weinzweig
Published: November 2003 by Houghton Mifflin
Pages: 512
Genre: Nonfiction/food
Audience: Food lovers

In My Mailbox/Library Loot

This is my first time participating in "In My Mailbox." I never thought to participate before because I rarely buy books and haven't received many ARCs yet. But after reading The Story Siren's rules for participating, I realized that you can include your "Library Loot" too as Becky from Becky's Book Reviews likes to call it.

So today I'm participating in my very first "IMM" which most weeks will be "LL" :o)

Picture Books:
Bogie Sees Paris by Arleen Shabel
Making the Moose Out of Life by Nicholas Oldland

Preposterous: Poems of Youth selected by Paul B. Janeczko
Newspaper Blackout by Austin Kleon

I'm Just Here for the Food by Alton Brown

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink
Frindle by Andrew Clements

In My Mailbox:
The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney (received in a giveaway from author Stephanie Perkins)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Sowing Seeds

I read a journal entry to my class in English today that was inspired by another student's journal entry. When I told the class about being inspired by someone else's writing, one of my students said, "The seed just keeps growing."

I love it when they apply the metaphors I teach them about writing. Makes me glad to know I don't sound like Charlie Brown's teacher everyday - only just some days.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert

When last we left Liz Gilbert, she was basking in the glow of her new relationship with the suave, older Brazilian man she met in Bali. While they each made a long-term commitment to the other, neither one was willing to walk down the aisle again. But then fate intervened: frequently traveling into the United States for three month spurts, one day, Gilbert's beau was detained at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport by Homeland Security declaring that the only way he would be allowed back in the country was if he married his American girlfriend.

Thus began the perilous journey back into matrimony for Liz and Filipe. In order for her to resign herself to this idea, she began a lengthy research into the history of marriage.

What endears readers to Gilbert's prose is that she can take such a dry topic like the history of marriage and make it interesting and accessible. I have come to the conclusion that Elizabeth Gilbert could write about the history of the phone book and I would be fascinated with what she had to say. She just has a way of explaining something in such an organized, logical, easy-to-read package, yet she still packs a punch with her personality and unique voice.

It amazes me that Gilbert could be so neurotic that in order to re-marry, she had to do extensive research on the topic of marriage. Luckily her neuroses results in very successful books. Keep up the crazy Miss Gilbert because I'll keep reading your books.

Not only was I thoroughly entertained while reading, but I was also impressed with how much I learned about the institution of marriage. You too will be shocked by the things you thought you knew about marriage that will be completely obliterated by reading this book. For example, did you know that early Christians looked down on marriage? It only begrudgingly became a sacrament as a way to try to control the institution rather than trying to prevent people from doing it since that wasn't working. Hmmmm... going to let you draw your own conclusions on that one.

This book is clearly not as engaging as Eat, Pray, Love but it was certainly worth the read. I highly recommend it for anyone considering marriage.

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert
Published: January 2010
Pages: 285
Genre: Nonfiction
Audience: Adults

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Get in the Zone: The Reading Zone

Nancie Atwell, one of my pedagogical heroes, talks about getting in "the zone" while reading books. Being so involved with the story on the pages in front of you that the classroom surroundings just fade away and you become part of the story.

I frequently see this with my new class of students. I often find the bell ringing and having to shoo the kids out of my room because they just won't put their books down. I guess there are worse problems to have as a teacher.

Nowhere was this reading zone made more clear to me than the other day when I came across one of my 5th grade students (I teach mainly 6th grade, but I have one class of 5th grade reading) sitting at the round table with my stuffed frog on his head. He was not doing this to be funny or draw attention to himself. In fact, he was sitting this way for quite a while before I even noticed. That's what I call being in the reading zone: being so engaged in a book that you don't even notice that you've got a frog on your head.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger

Dwight, a loser, talks to his classmates via an origami finger puppet of Yoda. If that weren’t strange enough, the puppet is uncannily wise and prescient. Origami Yoda predicts the date of a pop quiz, guesses who stole the classroom Shakespeare bust, and saves a classmate from popularity-crushing embarrassment with some well-timed advice. Dwight’s classmate Tommy wonders how Yoda can be so smart when Dwight himself is so clueless. With contributions from his puzzled classmates, he assembles the case file that forms this novel. - synopsis taken from Goodreads

I wasn't going to review this book because, while I enjoyed it, I wasn't blown away by it. But then something happened. I put the book on my bookshelf after I finished reading it and kids were clamoring for it. Everyday I would have a different student ask for it.

This got me to thinking. Books don't always have to be well-written. They don't even have to have a good story. Sometimes they just have to have some sort of unifier - something that will get kids talking and that attracts them toward the book.

At my school, the popularity of this book intensified a few days ago when one of my students came to the end of the book, saw the instructions to make her own origami Yoda, and now I've got a bunch of junior high students walking around with Yodas on their fingers - including their teacher:

So even though I give the actual story three stars, I'm going to give the idea 5 stars because middle grade kids are eating this book up.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Author Interview: Lisa Graff

Author of Umbrella Summer, Lisa Graff, is here to share some thoughts about her new book for younger readers: Sophie Simon Solves them All.

For a third-grader, Sophie Simon is one smart cookie. She enjoys teaching herself advanced calculus and has performed successful heart surgery on an earthworm. She's also very clever when it comes to dealing with her clueless parents. But Sophie is no genius when it comes to calculating the high value of friendship--until, that is, she has to use her incredible IQ to help out some classmates with their own parental troubles. - synopsis taken from Goodreads

Foodie Bibliophile: Other than this being your first book for younger readers, how does Sophie Simon differ from your other books?

Lisa Graff: All of my other books so far have been pretty realistic school stories, but Sophie Simon Solves Them All is more what my editor likes to call “one foot in reality.” It’s more exaggerated, definitely more goofy, but still relatable. I like to think that if Beverly Cleary and Roald Dahl had a love child, it would be Sophie Simon.

FB: To counter the last question, what about this book makes it a "Lisa Graff" book?

LG: I have a pretty offbeat sense of humor, and I think that’s been present in all my books, even if it’s much more on display here. And another thing I’ve tried to do in all my books thus far is bring in multiple plotlines, which somehow crash into one another at the end. That element is probably the reason I end up having to write so many drafts of each book, to make sure the plotlines crash in just the right way, but it’s probably also my very favorite part of the process.

FB: Which of your books is your favorite? Or is that like asking you to choose your favorite child?

LG: It is a bit like asking to pick a favorite child! :) But as I don’t have any children, I don’t mind being a terrible mother and answering . . . I love all of my books, of course, and I think that, like children, they all have different “personalities.” And usually the one I’m working on at the moment is the one I cite as my favorite. But of all of them, I think Umbrella Summer will always hold a special place in my heart, because it’s the most closely based on my life.

FB: As an English teacher, I dole out tons of advice and lessons about writing, but it's always nice to hear it from someone who's an actual published writer, so what would be your number one piece of advice to give to middle school students about writing?

LG: I would love to hear your writing advice! I feel like that’s something no one can have too much of. :)

The best writing advice I have is to sit down and do it—to write and to keep writing. Because you don’t get to be a good writer by thinking about it. And I would also emphasize the importance of revising, which can be like pulling teeth if you let it, but can also be like a hairdresser fixing a sloppy haircut—a way to make something beautiful out of a former mess. (I actually like rewriting more than I like first drafts!)

FB: Is writing your day job? If not, what else do you do besides write?

LG: Writing is my day job now, although until earlier this year I worked as a children’s book editor at a publishing house, which is a job I absolutely loved. After a long time working as both a writer and an editor, I decided to concentrate solely on the writing side of things. It’s been a lot of fun so far, but it is definitely a transition making sure to sit myself down in my chair, when no one is there to make sure I’m getting my work done!

FB: What's the weirdest/worst job you've ever had?

LG: When I was in college I spent a year working at an eye research lab, where one of my many tasks was to slice up frozen rat eyeballs (yes, really). I also worked for two summers as a Girl Scout camp counselor, which is probably the only place one gets paid to cook a turkey in a fire pit and engage in three-legged scavenger hunts (not at the same time).

FB: In Sophie Simon, Mr. St. Cupid is the ridiculously, comically unfair teacher in the story. Was he inspired by a particular teacher of yours, or was he there just to show an exaggerated sense about how kids feel about rules?

LG: I was very fortunate to be blessed with mostly amazing teachers. One of my very favorite teachers in high school, Mr. Karns, taught biology and was known for the absolute fervor with which he upheld rather ridiculous rules (you could fail an entire lab by mis-measuring the margin of your paper). So Mr. St. Cupid might have a titch of Mr. Karns in him somewhere. But the difference between them is that I learned tons in that biology, and I don’t think any student anywhere could possibly learn a single thing from a teacher like Mr. St. Cupid. :)

FB: Since Sophie is such a genius, where do you see her choosing to attend college (early of course)? What would be her major?

LG: Ooh, this is such a good question! Hmmm . . . For some reason I see Sophie ending up at Caltech (the California Institute of Technology) in Pasadena—partly because I can clearly envision her working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and also because I once heard that the students there are so serious that the faculty allow them to keep cats in the dorm rooms, just to cheer them up a little bit. (This could very well be a myth, but in any case I like the idea of it. And for the record, Sophie would definitely say no to the cat. It would deter her from her studies.) I’m thinking she’d make up her own major, something that combined all her favorite subjects. Psycholochemicalcuhistory, perhaps?

FB: Will we be seeing more of Sophie? She feels like a character that has more conundrums to solve. Perhaps even a mystery?

LG: I’d love to write more about Sophie! I actually have snippets of outlines for several books, but have been so wrapped up working on other things lately that I have yet to have a go at any of them. But hopefully soon . . .

FB: Since Sophie is so good at solving problems, what do you think she would have to say about... ...the BP oil spill ...the housing crisis warming care

LG: Oh goodness, I think those problems might be too big even for Sophie! Probably instead of trying to fix things (very likely impossible), she would instead prepare for the inevitable, and focus on what to do after the collapse of civilization. She would most likely take a page out of Rome’s history book and use that as a model. Just because Ancient Rome went kaplooey, you don’t see the Italians moaning about it, do you? No, sir! So, for example, Sophie would begin to set up cheesy men in togas outside of what are now our football stadiums, just as they do outside the old Coliseum, to capitalize on tourism. And she’d definitely invest in a quality gelato maker. Those sorts of things. Personally, I’m looking forward to it.

FB: What would Sophie say to President Obama if she had an audience with him?

LG: Sophie is a big fan of looking to history and the wise men and women who have come before us for help with the future, so I think she’d offer President Obama some advice from another great leader, Mr. Winston Churchill: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” (Of course, it was also Churchill who said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they've tried everything else.”) But probably she’d just ask him if he’d read any good books lately.

FB: That first Wiston Churchill quote is one of my favorites! It's a great reminder to all people that you can't do a job with heart and passion without someone out there disapproving. Thank you so much Lisa for stopping by today! Sophie Simon Solves Them All is in bookstores now.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux is giving away a free copy of
Sophie Simon Solves Them All to one lucky blog reader! Just send an email to, along with the name of this blog, for a chance to win (winners will be notified within the week).

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Dont Forget...

... about my audiobook giveaway of Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson.

Giveaway ends at 10PM EST on October 10th. Open to US residents only.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Radiance by Alyson Noel

I received this book as an ARC from the publisher. I have not read Alyson Noel's Immortals series so this is my first experience with her books.

In Radiance, Riley Bloom, along with her parents and her dog Buttercup, cross over the shining bridge into the Here & Now after a car accident. As Riley begins to settle into her Afterlife, she soon discovers that being dead does not mean she'll get to sit around on a cloud watching the mortals below.

Riley is given a job as a soul catcher, along with a teacher - a teenage boy named Bodhi - whose job it is to guide her in learning her new job.

This book was an extremely entertaining and quick read. I will definitely keep up with the series, but I have a couple criticisms of the book:

1) Riley's voice is a tad inconsistent. One minute she's talking like a typical twelve-year-old, using words like ginormous and bejeezums, the next minute she's using words like "glean" and "extenuating circumstances." Noel does briefly address this inconsistency, however, on p. 76 when Riley says, "As someone who likes to mix up my vocabulary a bit, I decided I'd like him for that," but it almost felt like it was added in there as an editor suggestion. Like she said, "OK, Riley talks like a twelve year old girl most of the time, but then you've got her saying these things here and it just doesn't seem like her voice."

2) I thought there were way too many current pop culture references in this story to make this a book worth reading ten years from now. If I were an author (and some day I hope to be) the one thing I would make sure I do is avoid dating my book. But when you mention things like Kelly Clarkson, Joe Jonas, Wii, Punk'd, and Zac Efron, you are giving your book a shelf life, a "sell by" date if you will. The thing is, middle grade readers are really fickle, and 15-20 years from now, kids are going to pick up this book and say, "Who? What? Huh?" and then put the book down due to its inability to reach a new generation of readers. I mean, just imagine if a group of kids today picked up a book that mentioned Pearl Jam, Color Me Badd, and Sega - how many of them would a) know what or who the heck the author was talking about and b) want to keep reading. I'm not saying an author can't make an allusion here and there to pop culture, but I would not suggest making the book rife with it.

Other than those two criticisms, however, it was an enjoyable read and I'm looking forward to catching the next installment.

Cover Comments: I think this cover is stunning. The colors and dream-like quality of the foggy bridge in the background and a glowing Riley and Buttercup in the foreground would make anyone want to pick this book up and read it.

Check out the Book Trailer Here:

Radiance by Alyson Noel
Published: August 2010
Pages: 178
Genre: Fantasy
Audience: Middle grade

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson audiobook review (+ giveaway)

Rose Mae Lolley is a fierce and dirty girl, long-suppressed under flowery skirts and bow-trimmed ballet flats. As "Mrs. Ro Grandee" she's trapped in a marriage that's thick with love and sick with abuse. Her true self has been bound in the chains of marital bliss in rural Texas, letting "Ro" make eggs, iron shirts, and take her punches. She seems doomed to spend the rest of her life battered outside by her husband and inside by her former self, until fate throws her in the path of an airport gypsy---one who shares her past and knows her future. The tarot cards foretell that Rose's beautiful, abusive husband is going to kill her. Unless she kills him first.

Hot-blooded Rose Mae escapes from under Ro's perky compliance and emerges with a gun and a plan to beat the hand she's been dealt. Following messages that her long-missing mother has left hidden for her in graffiti and behind paintings, Rose and her dog Gretel set out from Amarillo, TX back to her hometown of Fruiton, AL, and then on to California, unearthing a host of family secrets as she goes. Running for her life, she realizes that she must face her past in order to overcome her fate---death by marriage---and become a girl who is strong enough to save herself from the one who loves her best. - synopsis taken from Goodreads.

Backseat Saints is beautifully written despite a painful subject matter. Had I not been so transfixed by Jackson's masterful turn of phrase and hypnotizing audio narration (by the author herself), I probably would have some more critical things to say, but since this was one of those audiobooks that is so well narrated, all I can do is sing its praises. Jackson has such a sweet, lilting southern drawl that you can't help but be won over by her storytelling.

There is no point in this story where you feel the outcome will be predictable. You are constantly left guessing as to how Jackson will end it and the climax will leave you on the edge of you seat. If you often find yourself turned off by boring, sleep-inducing audiobooks, look no further than Backseat Saints to jolt you from your slumber.

Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson
Audiobook narrated by: Joshilyn Jackson
Audiobook published: June 2010
Total playing time: 13 Hours
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Audience: Adults


Back in June I participated in Audiobook Week over at Devourer of Books. Jen was able to provide a great deal of audiobook giveaways through the generosity of publishers. Backseat Saints was a title I won through that week of participation and I'd like to pass it on to someone else to enjoy.

Fill out the form below before 10 PM EST on October 10, 2010 and I will send one lucky winner my 11-CD audiobook copy of Backseat Saints.

Open to US residents only.