Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Review: Doll Bones by Holly Black

About the Book

Doll Bones by Holly Black
Published on May 7, 2013 by Margaret K. McElderry Books

GoodReads Description

Zach, Poppy and Alice have been friends for ever. They love playing with their action figure toys, imagining a magical world of adventure and heroism. But disaster strikes when, without warning, Zach’s father throws out all his toys, declaring he’s too old for them. Zach is furious, confused and embarrassed, deciding that the only way to cope is to stop playing . . . and stop being friends with Poppy and Alice.

But one night the girls pay Zach a visit, and tell him about a series of mysterious occurrences. Poppy swears that she is now being haunted by a china doll – who claims that it is made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl. They must return the doll to where the girl lived, and bury it. Otherwise the three children will be cursed for eternity . . .

My Thoughts

Lately, it seems that I have been reading books with the intention of bulking up my classroom library instead of bringing attention to books that have been more recently published.  Doll Bones is another book that I read in the interest of student enjoyment.  Luckily, this book did not disappoint me.

Zach was most definitely my favorite character.  I loved that he was not only conflicted, but conflicted about things that many of my students deal with.  This also made me chuckle a bit because the things that he considers the most important to him are definitely not the supernatural events happening around him.  It's so typical for a middle school kid to have his head cemented in his own world while the real world goes on around him.

Although I liked the realism of Zach's character, I didn't feel like the romance between him and another character made sense.  It just didn't seem necessary or planned out.  The novel did not need this after thought of an idea to progress.

The supernatural aspect of this novel was very well-written.  Another reviewer (sorry, I don't remember where I read this and I can't seem to find the quote) mentioned that they liked that the focus was on the kids and not on the supernatural things happening to them.  I can't agree with this more.  Black does a phenomenal job creating a world that happened to have magic in it.  Her focus is in the exact right place in this book.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book.  It definitely seems like something my middle school students will enjoy and has entered my classroom library.

My Rating

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green

About the Book

Looking for Alaska by John Green
Published by Speak on December 28, 2006

GoodReads Description

Before. Miles “Pudge” Halter is done with his safe life at home. His whole life has been one big non-event, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave “the Great Perhaps” even more (Francois Rabelais, poet). He heads off to the sometimes crazy and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young. She is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart. Then. . . .
After. Nothing is ever the same.

My Thoughts

I read this book because I knew that one of my students read it several times a year and loved it.  I wanted to know what drew her to this book so much that at one point she stole it from the school library and refused to let it go.  I did not read this book as a way to understand something that had happened in my own life.  I did not read this book to help myself grieve and work through some of the emotional parts of losing a student in a tragic car accident only four months ago.  I'm grateful for the ways that this novel, particular the ending, helped me to do so.  The situation was definitely very different, but the healing was much the same.

Green's characters are absolutely exquisite.  I was enraptured by how realistic all of them are.  In fact, I pictured several of my own students acting just the way that Pudge, the Colonel, Alaska, Takumi, and Lara would.  This intricate characterization held me so close to the book that I loathed having to set it down to go to bed.  I grabbed this novel at every moment I possibly could.  

Of all the characters, Pudge was my favorite.  Instead of having a main character who is forced to feel a certain way because the novel needs him/her to, Pudge's emotions are real and raw.  At no time did I sense that he was simply written into the part.  My favorite ting about Pudge is the way that he is constantly seeking more.  He would have been able to happily stay in Florida and could have escaped both the love and pain that were Alaska Young.  I think, however, that he truly came to life because of her.

The relationship between Alaska and Pudge bothered me just a little bit, but I'm sure that it was meant to.  It seems that Alaska has no real shame about leading Pudge on, whether she's drunk or not.  However, I hated this as much as I loved it.  After all, no person and no relationship are perfect.  There are several Alaska's in the world.  This layer of their relationship and Alaska's character lent another level of reality to the novel.

Despite desperately trying not to include spoilers, I must add that my absolute favorite part of this novel was the end.  Not because it was finally over, but because this is where Pudge really matured emotionally.  This is where he brings up the answers to a lot of questions that anyone who has ever dealt with a death needs to hear.  It is the most natural and most poetic conclusion possible.

I will be reading this book again and again, but have not yet decided if I will put a copy in my classroom.  While I believe that this book can and will help students through difficult times in their lives, I'm not sure that I want to have 6th and 7th graders easily reach this book. I'm not sure what our community standards have to say about a book including underage sex, drinking, and delinquent behavior.  If any teachers are reading this, please leave a comment with your suggestions! I would love to hear how you have handled this in your classroom.

My Rating

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Review: Pax by Sara Pennypacker

About the Book

Pax by Sara Pennypacker
Published by Balzer + Bray on February 2, 2016

GoodReads Description

Pax was only a kit when his family was killed, and “his boy” Peter rescued him from abandonment and certain death. Now the war front approaches, and when Peter’s father enlists, Peter has to move in with his grandpa. Far worse than being forced to leave home is the fact that Pax can’t go. Peter listens to his stern father—as he usually does—and throws Pax’s favorite toy soldier into the woods. When the fox runs to retrieve it, Peter and his dad get back in the car and leave him there—alone. But before Peter makes it through even one night under his grandfather’s roof, regret and duty spur him to action; he packs for a trek to get his best friend back and sneaks into the night. This is the story of Peter, Pax, and their independent struggles to return to one another against all odds. Told from the alternating viewpoints of Peter and Pax.

My Thoughts

I found Pax on a Wal-Mart shelf and found myself drawn to the cover.  Both the art style and the simple title made me curious about what I discovered inside. Would the story be as simple as the cover? Would this small book hold deep thoughts about the world we live in? Luckily, the answer to both questions was yes. 

Pennypacker creates beautiful, life-like characters.  What is unusual, however, is that she characterizes animals with much more detail and emotion than she does humans.  I liked both Pax and Peter as characters.  But I loved seeing the experiences and emotions through Pax's eyes.  He was the one who captured my attention.  His big heart and eagerness to care for the beings around him truly made him come to life.  Despite Peter being the human this novel centers around, Pax was truly the one who came into himself in a very Call of the Wild kind of way.

It was obvious to me that Pennypacker put a lot of thought and effort into several themes. Of these, the most important were unconditional love and the effects of war.  Because the importance of unconditional love in this novel will become readily apparent to anyone who reads the synopsis, I'd like to spend my time discussing the latter.  Pennypacker does not present war as an evil that should be completely done away with.  In fact, she speaks to its necessity in specific cases and dire straits.  She uses Pax to encourage us, as human beings, to be more aware of our actions and their responses during war times.  She demands that people take an extra moment to think about what their decisions are costing the world around them.  These costs are often more than the already devastating losses of lives and countless injuries.  They include the damage done to nature of both wildlife and mankind itself. This is quite a powerful statement for a Middle Grade book and I was impressed not only by its inclusion but by its elegance.

I was frustrated by the fact that there doesn't seem to be any specific time mentioned for the setting of this novel. Simply mentioning cars, baseball, and prosthetic legs does not help one to narrow down the time period in which this story was written.  I think this was done, in part, to emphasize the theme about the effects of war.  These effects are not specific to one time period or to one war.  They affect all wars in all countries between all people.  I am yet to decide if this adds to or takes away from my enjoyment of the novel.  I tend to like very specific world building, but I may be comfortable with letting this vague aspect go by.

What I am certain about is that I would one day love to teach this book.  Pax will engage several Middle Grade students because it is an engaging novel that includes an animal that most students are already familiar with.  I can think of several of my students that would be fascinated by the sections written from Pax's point of view.  Additionally, this book lends to several conversations about theme, tone, mood, and characterization. I am excited to say that my copy of this novel will join my classroom library tomorrow.

Overall, I felt this was a very well-written novel that has a lot to offer its readers.  I think that this is the kind of book a person takes something new from each time that they read it.

My Rating