Tags:Historical fiction; young adult; dogs; orphans; France; England; Hundred Years’ War; adventure; a boy and his dog; friendship.
Title: Ways to Live Forever
Author: Sally Nichols
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books, Scholastic Inc.
Copyright Date: 2008
Plot: “My name is Sam. I am eleven years old. I collect stories and fantastic facts. I have leukemia. By the time you read this, I will probably be dead.”
And so begins Sam’s story. Facing his third recurrence of leukemia, and his inevitable death, Sam decides to write a book regarding his life, and his illness. With the help of his best friend Felix—who is also terminally ill with an incurable cancer—Sam creates his book, a collection of facts, lists, stories, pictures, and questions. And Sam is full of questions, questions like “Why does God make kids get ill?” and “What would happen if someone wasn’t really dead and people thought they were”? Written during the last three months of his life, Sam’s book becomes a map that guides Sam and his family through the final stages of his leukemia.
Key Issues: Death and dying; leukemia; social issues; family life; friendship; mortality.
Warnings: Many of the questions Sam struggles to answer throughout the novel are questions that are best discussed with family members. Therefore, even though Ways to Live Forever is uplifting, insightful, and surprisingly funny, I would recommend that parental permission be obtained before reading this book in class, and I would recommend that this book not be read in a classroom environment until students have at least reached the 6th grade.
Audience: Due to the subject matter—death and dying—and the characters’
complicated emotions, I would recommend this book to students in grades 6-9.
Teaching Ideas: As a pre-reading activity, ask students to write about what cancer is and possible causes for cancer. While reading the book, have students make their own lists of things they would like to accomplish before they die; have them discuss their lists with the class, if they feel comfortable enough to do so. After reading the novel, have students discover ways they can help cancer patients.
Tags: Cancer; leukemia; terminal illness; young adult; realistic fiction; friendship; death.
Title: Fablehaven: Rise of the Evening Star
Author: Brandon Mull
Publisher/Imprint: Aladdin Paperbacks; Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing Division
Copyright Date: 2007
Plot: The second book of the Fablehaven series picks up approximately one year after the first. In the first pages, Kendra and Seth, after living almost a year without running into any magical beings, find themselves confronted by a kobold, a sneaky goblin-like creature. As the kobold begins to show a romantic interest in Kendra’s friends, Kendra decides that the creature has to go. She and Seth find help in an unlikely source, but, in the process of getting rid of the kobold, Kendra and Seth are sucked into series of magical events that propel them back to Fablehaven.
Upon arriving at Fablehaven, the brother and sister find their grandfather injured and learn that Fablehaven is under attack from the Society of the Evening Star. It seems that the Society has somehow managed to infiltrate Fablehaven, and they have a secret operative who is working from inside of the preserve. But Kendra, Seth, and their grandparents don’t know who the operative could be. While the family tries to uncover the secret agent, Seth is pursued by a demon by the name of Olloch.
In the end, it is up to Kendra and Seth, once again, to save Fablehaven – but they aren’t sure if they will be able to untangle the web of intrigue that surrounds Fablehaven in time to save the precious preserve.
Key Issues: honesty, faithfulness to friends, courage, and bravery
Audience: Males and females, from middle to high school
Teaching Ideas: 1. Fablehaven is the home of several magical creatures.
Have students create an imaginary magical creature and write a descriptive paper on their creature. 2. The Fablehaven series isn’t over – have students make detailed predications as to what will happen in the next book. Is the Sphinx evil? Is Vanessa? Will the Society of the Evening Star triumph? 3. Coulter sacrifices himself to save Seth halfway through the novel. Ask students to write a report on a historical individual who chose to sacrifice him or herself for someone else. 4. Ask students to write a journal entry in which they discuss their reaction to the end of the novel.
Title: The Graveyard Book
Author: Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Dave McKean
Publisher/Imprint: HarperCollins Publishers
Copyright Date: 2008
Plot: The book riffs on Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books. In the role of Mowgli is Nobody (“Bod”) Owens – an orphan. When a man with a knife in the darkness, the mysterious man Jack, murders his family, Bod is taken in by the inhabitants of the local graveyard, and given the Freedom of the Graveyard. That is, Bod is empowered with the faculties of the dead – he can see in the dark, he can move through tombs, he can haunt, he can fade. But he must not leave the graveyard, because the man Jack is looking for him.
Bod grows up in the graveyard, and loves it: it is home. He has adventures. There is a colorful supporting cast of characters, including: Silas, his guardian – a vampire; Miss Lupescu, his teacher – a “Hound of God”; Mr. and Mrs. Owens – his adopted parents – ghosts; Liza Hempstock, his friend – a witch ghost; and an assortment of other ghosts. But it is Scarlett Amber Perkins, the living girl he meets in the graveyard (she thinks he is her invisible friend), that gives Bod the feeling he is missing out on something… life. As Bod approaches adulthood, he grows restless; but the while, the man Jack is lurking all the while – waiting for the opportunity to finish the job he started.
Key Issues: coming-of-age, evil, friendship, mortality
Warnings: It is clean (it is last year’s Newberry winner), but there could be the same kind of objections that have been raised against the Harry Potter series – black magic stuff.
Audience: Boys and girls, grades 6-9.
Teaching Ideas: The book could springboard into a local history research project, a family tree – something that plumbs the past and makes a contemporary connection. *As a consummating release, a class can throw their own “Danse Macabre” (a kind of hoedown in which the living dance with the dead) – food and drinks and fun. It would be a great book to wrap up around Halloween and thus tie it all in. *You can introduce outside readings – The Jungle Books, famous epitaphs, obituaries. *Students can design their own tombstone (if this is a little too grim, you can invert it – make a kind of lifestone). *Reading aloud – there’s a lot of suspense. I have listened to some of the audiobook (read by the author) and would recommend working that in if it is more your thing.
Title: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Author: J. K. Rowling
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books (an Imprint of Scholastic Press)
Copyright Date: 1997
Plot: When the novel begins, Harry Potter believes that he is a normal ten-year-old boy living with his cantankerous aunt and uncle in England. However, Harry Potter soon discovers that he is the son of the most powerful couple in the world of witchcraft. On Harry’s 11th birthday, Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts (the premiere magic school in England), decides that it is time for Harry to begin his education. Dumbledore commissions Hagrid, the groundskeeper at Hogwarts, to outfit Harry with the supplies that every wizard needs and bring him to school. While studying at Hogwarts, Harry becomes friends with Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger and learns to fly on a broomstick, cast spells with his magic wand, and conceal his body beneath a cloak of invisibility. Harry also encounters several unsavory characters during his time at Hogwarts, including a foul-smelling troll, a three-headed dog, an infant dragon, and a dubious professor. Will Harry be able to defeat Voldemort, the evil wizard who killed his parents, before he steals the Sorcerer’s Stone and destroys everything that the good witches and wizards of the world hold dear?
Key Ideas: Friendship, self-discovery, family dynamics, peer pressure, bullying, courage and bravery, good vs. evil
Warnings: There is no foul language or sexual content in this novel. Some parents may not approve of the references to witchcraft, wizards, trolls, supernatural events, evil, murder, etc. However, I personally did not find any objectionable material in this book.
Audience: Because of Harry Potter’s age in this book (eleven years old), I would recommend Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone for students in elementary school (4th or 5th grade) and middle school. However, I think that high school students would enjoy reading this novel as well. I think that boys and girls would enjoy reading this novel equally. Although the main character is male, there is a strong supporting female character (Hermione) in most of the book. Also, I think the issues of peer pressure, friendship, and fitting in at school are universal.
Teaching Ideas: I would consider teaching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to the whole class if I were working in a middle school setting and if I had parental permission. I think that students would enjoy reading this novel and would learn about conflict, characterization, plot, etc.
I think that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone would be a wonderful novel to use in conjunction with a unit on Greek or Roman mythology. This novel contains references to numerous mythological creatures (ex: Cerberus the three-headed dog). The students could research mythological beasts and write a paper or create a project to present to the class.
In the novel, numerous characters send letters back and forth using their owls. The teacher could arrange for the students to have pen pals at another school or in another grade or section at the same school. The students would then write letters back and forth about events or characters that they find interesting in the novel.
The students could design their own school like Hogwarts. What kind of classes would be taught? What would the teachers be like? What would the mascot be? What kind of extracurricular activities would be available? The students would design a seal for their school and write a school song or poem.
The students could watch parts of the movie and write an essay comparing the film and the novel.
The students could create a graphic novel or comic book based on the novel.
The students could design a bio body based on one of the characters in the novel.
At the end of the unit, the students could host a Hogwarts party complete with every flavor jelly beans and chocolate covered frogs.
Title:The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
Author: Ann Brashares
Publisher: Dell Laurel Leaf (an imprint of Random House Children’s Books)
Copyright Date: 2001
Plot: Lena Kaligaris, Tibby Rollins, Bridget Vreeland, and Carmen Lowell have been best friends since their mothers first met in an aerobics class for expectant women. Carmen buys a pair of jeans at the local thrift store, and the four girls soon discover that the pants fit each one of them perfectly, even though the girls are all different sizes and shapes. In order to keep in touch during their first summer apart, they decide to pass the pants along from one girl to another. The girls also compose a list of ten rules that the members of the “sisterhood” must always follow while wearing the pants. The pants first travel to Greece with Lena, who is spending the summer with her grandparents in a small fishing village. Next, Lena sends the pants to Tibby, who is stuck at home taking care of her little brother and sister while also working at Wallman’s. Tibby sends the pants to Carmen, who is visiting her divorced father in South Carolina. Carmen sends the pants to Bridget, who is at a soccer camp in Baja California. Then, according to the rules, the pants are returned in reverse order—Bridget to Carmen to Tibby to Lena. While wearing the traveling pants, the girls gain insight into their lives and quickly learn that growing up is not always easy.
Key Issues: Friendship, Romantic relationships, Family dynamics, Growing up, Death of a friend, Death of a parent, First sexual encounter, First love, Divorce and remarriage
Warnings: Mild language, Mild sexuality
Audience: Females (ages 12 to 18)
Teaching Ideas: Because this book is geared toward a female audience, I would not attempt to teach it to an entire class. However, there is very little objectionable material in this novel, so I would not hesitate to recommend it to individual students for silent sustained reading. I might also use this book for a literature circle; there is a lot of strong characterization in this novel, which makes it a worthwhile read. At the same time, I think that there might be better books to use when teaching characterization. I can think of several interesting journal writing activities related to this novel. Because this book has four main characters, each member of the literature circle could choose one character and keep a diary from that character’s point of view while reading. The members of the literature circle could compare certain scenes from the novel to scenes from the movie. There are several major differences between the plot of the book and the plot of the film. The members of the literature circle could discuss the significance of these differences. The students could make bio bodies or write six word memoirs for each main character in the novel. The students could also make their own documentary like Tibby does in the book. This novel also has a lot of scenes that may be fun for the literature circle to act out in front of the class.
Title: Rhymes With Witches
Author: Lauren Myracle
Publisher/Imprint: Amulet Books
Plot: Jane is a high school freshman who would do anything to be popular. She is completely psyched when the worshipped Bitches asks her to be friends with them. To be sure Jane is fit to be a Bitch, the clique makes her go through a number of tests. The first test seems pretty harmless -- she must attend a party at the most popular guy’s house. Overwhelmed by her inability to interact with the cool people, Jane ends up hiding in the kitchen. She doesn’t think the Bitches noticed her hiding out, until a couple days later they show her a tape of her ducking down behind the kitchen counter. Determined to make up for her mistake and impress the Bitches, she’s ready for the next challenge. The second test is to steal something from another girl. It can be anything -- a hair barrette or a paperclip. Jane is instructed to deliver this item to her teacher’s desk. The task seems easy enough, until Jane discovers that she’s participating in some kind of witchcraft. The girls whose items she’s stolen seem to be cursed. Embarrassing things keep happening to them and they are immediately demoted in the popularity chain. Jane realizes she’s stealing popularity from other girls, to become popular herself. She finds herself facing a difficult decision: Does she want to protect her true best friend from the wrath of the Bitches, or does she want to continue to be the queen of the school?
KeyIssues: Friendship, Witchcraft, Paranormal, High School, Horror
Warnings: The only language to be concerned about is the word Bitches which comes up about a hundred times throughout the novel. Other than that, there is some drinking mentioned at a high school party.
Audience: This novel is suitable for 9th through 12th graders. This book would best be taught in a small group situation.
1) At the end of the novel, Jane talks about how the rest of her high school experience will be hell because of what happened with the Bitches. Have students write a couple paragraphs predicting what the next day at school is going to be like. How does Phil help her cope? Does she salvage her friendship with Alicia?
2) Initiate a discussion within the group about Camilla. Ask the students why they think Camilla is so unaffected by the Bitches? Why do they think Bitsy hates Camilla so much for what she saw? Do they think Camilla could be a potential friend for Jane after the end of the novel?
3) Have the students make a model of Lurl the Pearl’s closet. Have them use all kinds of material to recreate the scene- clay for the statue, lip balm tubes, paperclips, cotton balls to make the cats.
Title: Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac
Author: Zevin, Gabrielle
Publisher/Imprint: Farrar Straus Giroux
Copyright Date: 2007
Plot: One fateful day, a girl loses a coin toss that changes the rest of her life. Naomi Porter wakes up in an ambulance with an unfamiliar boy sitting next to her and discovers that she cannot remember anything from the last four years of her life. She can’t remember her best friend Will, the person who knows her better than anyone else and who kissed her the night before her accident; she can’t remember her parents’ divorce or that she has a younger sister; she can’t remember her boyfriend or if they have had sex; and she can’t remember being on the yearbook staff, an activity that, according to Will, was more important than anything else she did. If she hadn’t lost the coin toss, Naomi would never have gone back to get the camera from the yearbook room, she would never have dropped it on the stairs, and she would never have hit her head when she fell down the stairs to save the camera. But she did , and now Naomi is an amnesiac. As she attempts to go back to the life that she can’t remember, Naomi must come to terms with the girl she has become (even if she doesn’t like that person), learn how to handle the relationships with the important people in her life whom she can’t remember, deal with her parents’ divorce and the separate lives they lead, and attempt to survive high school – even though she can’t remember anything she has learned since sixth grade. There is a possibility that Naomi will never get her memory back, and her life will definitely never be the same.
Key Issues: Friendship, Romance, Depression, Honesty, Relationship with Parents, Self-Discovery, Emotional Development, Adoption, and Identity
Warnings: The main character was sexually active before she got amnesia and she discusses it with her boyfriend. Another character struggles with depression caused by the death of his brother (that occurred before the events in the novel and is only discussed a few times). There is also a homosexual relationship between two female characters.
Audience: This novel would be appropriate for students ages 14-16. Although it might be more interesting to female readers, I think it would be appropriate for a male and female audience. There are several important male characters in the story and, for the most part, the issues that Naomi deals with are not gender-specific.
Teaching Ideas: The students could write letters to themselves (like the letter that Will writes to Naomi in the novel) about all of the important events and people in their lives they would want to remember if they ever became amnesiacs.
–Will makes Naomi mix CDs with meaningful songs to help her remember things that happened in the four years that are missing from her memory. The students could create their own playlists of significant songs that remind them of important events or people, explaining why they chose the songs and how the songs would help them recall specific memories.
–For each chapter, the students could keep a character diary in which they discuss and comment on the clues Naomi discovers that slowly reveal the person she was before the fall. The students would record the “evidence” as Naomi discovers it, reflecting on the person Naomi seemed to be before the fall and the person she is now (with amnesia).
Title: The Lovely Bones
Author: Alice Sebold
Publisher/Imprint: Little, Brown and Company
Plot: At fourteen years old, Susie Salmon has a full life ahead of her. But one day, while Susie is walking home from school, her neighbor invites her to see the hole he dug in the cornfield. Naive and trusting, Susie’s curiosity gets the best of her and she gets in the hole, admiring the little hiding place that Mr. Harvey has created for himself. Mr. Harvey, a man who has killed many women in the past, rapes and then kills Susie. In heaven, Susie spends most of her time watching her family; she can hear their thoughts and see what they do. Sometimes Susie can make herself present enough that her family – especially her younger brother Buckley – can even see her, but it is only for an instant. Never given the opportunity to grow up, Susie witnesses her sister, brother, first crush, and friends continue on with their lives; she lives vicariously through them and yearns to experience the same things. She also keeps a close eye on Mr. Harvey, learning about his past victims and worrying about his future ones. For many years Susie watches her family, sometimes making herself present enough to influence what they think and feel. She helps her father realize that Mr. Harvey is the killer and helps her sister steal evidence from Harvey’s house, which helps prove that he is Susie’s murderer. Even though Mr. Harvey escapes, Susie’s family must live their lives, always thinking of Susie but trying to move forward. And Susie must come to terms with the fact that she is dead; she will never know what it is like to grow up living on earth, but she can grow in death and find her place in heaven.
Key Issues: Growing Up, Death, Lies, Family Problems, Grief,
Warning: This novel has some very violent and sexually explicit scenes. The rape and murder of the protagonist, Susie, is described in detail. The murderer, Mr. Harvey, has very disturbing thoughts about the women and girls he has raped and murdered in the past. The novel also contains profanity.
Audience: Because this novel deals with intense, disturbing, and violent topics, it is not appropriate for students younger than 17. In some cases (with very mature students) it might be appropriate for juniors. I would not teach this book to a whole class. It would be best for an individual student or for a group of students who are very mature and capable of handling the issues presented in the novel.
Because this novel deals with death and grief, students could research the stages of grieving and create a pamphlet that teaches people about dealing with death and the loss of a loved one.
The students could do a creative writing assignment in which they create their own version of heaven, or what Susie calls “dreams come true.” Just as Susie has reasons for including certain things in her heaven, the students would have to have reasons for what is in their heaven, explaining why each thing is there.
The students could write diary entries from the point of view of one of the characters. Although the reader is able to see the thoughts of a character when Susie is focusing on that person, we don’t know what everyone is thinking all the time. Using the thoughts that Susie hears from heaven to create a voice in the entries, the students could fill in the gaps and create the thoughts of the character that the reader is not able to see.
The students could keep a “counselor’s notebook” for each character, taking notes on how each person deals with Susie’s death and analyzing the character’s experience, using the research on the grieving process to support the analysis.