Posted in Reading

Because I Was Reading

A few years ago, I convinced myself that I knew my books (all 700-ish of them) so well that I could identify them merely by touch. I sat on the couch with my eyes closed and my hands over my ears while my husband brought me five books at a time. Then, keeping my eyes closed, I ran my hands over the covers, flipped the pages, felt for bookmarks, inhaled their scents, and generally absorbed their bookiness through my pores before making my guess.

I didn’t get a single one right.

This was very disappointing and also somewhat embarrassing, and the “See-you’re-crazy-I-told-you-so” smirk on my husband’s face only made matters worse. However, I still maintain that I know SOME of my books that well. He obviously just didn’t bring me the right ones.

Whether or not I know my books as well as I thought, it doesn’t take away from how much I love them. Reading is still my favorite thing to do, and I did it a lot in 2017, finishing 60 books that spanned fiction, nonfiction, YA, middle grade, adult, children’s, poetry, short stories, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, realistic fiction, historical fiction, comedy, classics, graphic novels, comics, audio books, and novels in verse. Whew! I consider that a job well done.

However, dedicating the hours necessary to finish 60 books in a year does mean there are times when other areas of life are neglected.

Chances are…

If you called me and I didn’t answer, it’s because I was reading.

If I showed up a little late to your gathering, it’s because I was reading.

If I left the tea kettle whistling until the water boiled away, it’s because I was reading.

If I forgot to feed the dog, it’s because I was reading.

If an announcement about a delayed flight made me smile, it’s because I was reading.

If I had tears in my eyes at a coffee shop, it’s because I was reading.

If I didn’t realize a cat had crawled into my lap, it’s because I was reading.

And if I fell asleep on the couch with the light on and a bookmark stuck to my face, it’s because I was reading.

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A few of my favorite 2017 reading spots (& reading companions)

In fact, the reason why this post didn’t come out on December 31st like I planned, is because I was reading. I was determined to finish one more book before the end of the year. (And I did.)

So, the question is… WHAT was I reading?

I read a lot of things last year, and I liked most of them. Here are a few favorites. (For a full list of what I read, check out my Goodreads page.)

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* The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud – An excellent end to an amazing series. Read my full review of this fifth and final book in the Lockwood & Co. series here.

Print* Falling Over Sideways by Jordan Sonnenblick – Sonnenblick has outdone himself with this novel. I didn’t think I’d ever love any of his books more than Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, but Falling Over Sideways got it just right. Just absolutely perfectly right. An excellent read for middle schoolers, parents, teachers, and anyone who loves a good story.

25814154* The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell – I can’t express how much I loved The Madwoman Upstairs. It’s everything I wanted and needed from a summer read. Wit. Charm. Passionate book discussions. Literary scavenger hunts. Scandals. Secrets. A creepy old tower. The Brontes. This novel had it all. I listened to it on audio, read by Katie Koster, and it was fantastic. So fantastic, I bought the paper copy. Now I’m tempted to start over and read it again. So good.

24902132* Leaf and Beak: Sonnets by Scott Wiggerman – This poetry collection sat on my shelf for too long before I finally read it. Now, I don’t know why I waited. The sonnets follow the poet on his daily walks around his Austin neighborhood and are organized by the seasons, but there is nothing trite or expected from these elegant poems. The sonnets are both vivid and subtle, allowing the reader to stroll pleasantly through the verse while also inspiring her/him to pause and reflect at regular intervals. An excellent collection.

920607* The Arrival by Shaun Tan – Is it possible to “read” a book with no words? If you don’t think so, then you haven’t read The Arrival. This wordless story of a man leaving his homeland for a new country communicates the immigrant experience in a beautiful, intimate way.

17465707* Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro – I bought this book based on its adorable cover, and the inside didn’t disappoint. Still Writing is written in short essays, anecdotes, and tips. It reads easily and is a positive and encouraging take on the writing craft, while also being realistic. I took a lot of notes while reading it and put it down to write multiple times. (That’s how you know a writing book is good—it makes you WRITE.)

23203257* Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart – Lily, a transgender girl, and Dunkin, a boy with bipolar disorder, are both struggling through 8th grade. Their friendship will tug at your heart. At least, it tugged at mine.

19364719* Slasher Girls & Monster Boys edited by April Genevieve Tucholke – This anthology of teen horror stories by some of today’s best YA authors is way more gruesome and creepy and dark than I expected. I liked almost all of the stories, and several stayed with me long after I finished them, especially “In the Forest Dark and Deep” by Carrie Ryan. Thanks to that story, I’ll never be able to watch Alice in Wonderland without cringing again.

22840421* My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows – This book CRACKED. ME. UP. It’s a historical fantasy comedy romance. (Yeah, that’s a thing.) It’s like… if Game of Thrones met The Princess Bride except half the characters could turn into animals. You know what, just read it.

12948* (Not a favorite, but still one I want to mention) – The last book I read in 2017, the one I finished just a few hours before midnight, was The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and I can’t decide what I think of it. I’m keeping my thoughts to myself for now because my book club will be discussing this classic horror novel in a couple of weeks, and I don’t want to give away all my conversation topics here, but I would love to know what others thought of it. Have you read it? Did you like it? (I promise not to steal your opinions for my book club. All clever critiques will be duly attributed during our discussion, I promise.)

So… the next question is… What will I read THIS year?

I hesitate to even post these titles because, if history is any indicator, books that I put on my “must-read” list often meet with procrastination, forgetfulness, or disappointment. But this year’s list is a winner, I can feel it. Here are ten books I definitely want to burrow into in 2018:

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  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (I already started this one and am enjoying it so far.)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (This has been on my reading list for years. A friend gave me a beautiful purple copy for Christmas, so now I have no reason not to dive in.)
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (No, I’ve never read it. Don’t shun me. A student gave me a copy—again a gorgeous one—so I’m going to give this classic a try.)
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino (My friend recommended this book. The summary sounds just as strange as the title. Wonderfully strange! I’m so excited to read it.)
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (I’ve watched this author’s TED talks and read her interviews. Everything she says is eloquent and gorgeous, so I expect her book will be the same.)
  • Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman (This has also been on my reading list for years. It feels like time to read it.)
  • Ghosts of Greenglass House by Kate Milford (I got this sequel to one of my favorite middle grade novels for my birthday but haven’t made time for it yet. I can’t wait to see what Milo is up to.)
  • Dreadnought by April Daniels (I’ve heard great things about this YA novel about a transgender superhero.)
  • Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey (Nova Ren Suma recommended this book during my workshop with her at Highlights. I don’t remember why anymore, but when Nova Ren Suma recommends something, you read it.)
  • The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming (A student highly recommended this book to me, and it meets my goals of reading more nonfiction and reading outside my comfort zone. Plus, the girl is brilliant, so I trust her.)

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Well, there you have it. Books, books, and more books. I’d love to hear about your own reading achievements. What was your favorite read in 2017? What are your goals for 2018? And tell me what you thought of The Turn of the Screw! (It’s ok. You can be honest.)

Posted in Reading

Review: The Girl in the Well is Me

The Girl in the Well Is Me

The Girl in the Well is Me by Karen Rivers

Summary: Eleven-year-old Kammie is stuck in a well, and the only people who know she’s in there– three mean girls from school– may or may not be going for help. As Kammie slips further and further down the shaft, feeling every scrape on her raw skin and drifting in and out of hallucinations, she thinks back on the last few tumultuous months of her life, allowing the reader to piece together, bit by bit, who the girl in the well really is.

On the cover of The Girl in the Well is Me is a quote from Katherine Applegate that says, “I dare you to pick up this riveting novel without reading straight through to the heart-stopping conclusion.” When I saw that, I scoffed. I hate it when people tell me they read a book in one sitting because I almost never do, no matter how short it is, and I certainly didn’t believe Ms. Applegate about this 200-page middle grade novel. But I had to eat my words this time, because she was right. I read this book straight through, only stopping once to eat dinner. And even then, I felt guilty for leaving poor Kammie in the well while I sat on the couch eating pasta.

What I loved about the book:

* It’s a fast, riveting read, especially for a novel with so little dialogue.
* Writers are told to let bad things happen to our characters, and Karen Rivers really takes this to heart. It’s possible to argue that getting stuck in a well is not the worst thing that has happened to Kammie and even if it is, it’s the cherry on top of a large sundae of terrible things that have happened in her life recently. The book deals with some big bad issues, but it does so in a way that is appropriate for the intended audience.
* The way the back story is woven in is well-done (no pun intended). The revelations are surprising without feeling forced and continue to paint a more vivid picture of the character.
* Despite how much Kammie suffers, the book is also quite funny in places. She has a great voice and a few lines were hilarious enough to make me laugh out loud, like the part about the cats’ names on page 114, and this sentence from page 104: “It doesn’t get worse than being a Grandma-quoting well-bound girl in Texas with a crabby spider on your foot.”
* In her notes at the end of the book, the author makes reference to Baby Jessica, the eighteen-month-old who was stuck in a well in Midland, Texas, for more than two days in 1987. I also vividly remember following that story when I was in elementary school, which is another reason why this book appealed to me. I enjoyed reading from the point of view of the girl in the well, even though Kammie was much older than Baby Jessica.

Why not 5 stars?

First, I didn’t love the very end. It’s hard to explain why without giving anything away, so I’ll just say that I wish the book had ended a little sooner. Also, I really enjoyed reading this book in one sitting. It made it feel like I was there with Kammie, experiencing the trauma in real time. But there’s part of me that feels like you NEED to read the book that way to really enjoy it. I could see how repeatedly putting it down and picking it up again over the course of days would take away the immediacy of the situation. It might feel slower and more repetitive that way since, after all, this is a book that takes places almost solely in a well.

Overall, though, The Girl in the Well is Me is a great read that I think would appeal to lots of kids.

Posted in Lists, Reading

Carie’s Lists: 10 YA & MG Books That Deserve More Readers

I love reading books for kids and I love talking about books for kids. Most of the titles I mention to fellow kidlit readers get nods of recognition or at least the comment, “I’ve heard of that. Is it good?” But lately I’ve seen more and more blank looks when I mention certain titles, so I decided to do some investigating. The following ten books have been rated by fewer than 900 people on Goodreads, and for many the number is much lower. However, I’ve given them all at least three stars, sometimes four or five.

I think these books, which have been passed over for some reason, deserve another look. There’s good stuff here– memorable characters, touching stories, and a lot of diversity. Take a moment to scan the list and see if there’s not at least one book you or your child might be interested in reading.

[Note: All summary information is from Goodreads unless otherwise noted.]

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1. The Little Leftover Witch by Florence Laughlin – 1960

A little lost witch undergoes a magical transformation when she’s loved by a human family in this heartwarming story. When Felina, a little witch, breaks her broom on Halloween and can’t fly home, she is stuck with the Doon family and their black cat, Itchabody, for an entire year. Although she’s homesick and unhappy, the Doon parents and their daughter, Lucinda, do their best to make Felina feel welcome. (And she has no trouble with Itchabody at all!) As time passes, the mischievous Felina learns what it means to be part of a family—and how, with love, she will always belong.

My Rating – 5 stars

My Comments – This is such a beautiful little story. It’s not at all what I thought it was going to be, but I absolutely loved it. To see my full review, click here.

2. How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found by Sara Nickerson – 2003

Margaret’s father died in a mysterious drowning accident when she was eight years old. Four years later, her mother still won’t talk about it — in fact, she doesn’t talk about much of anything. But when Margaret’s mother takes her and her little sister, Sophie, to a strange abandoned mansion and puts a FOR SALE BY OWNER sign in the front yard, Margaret is determined to solve the puzzle of her family, once and for all.

Armed with three strange clues — a swimming medal, a key, and a handwritten comic book — Margaret returns to the mansion alone. With the help of Boyd, the lonely, comic-book-obsessed boy next door, she discovers that truth can be stranger than fiction — depending on who’s telling the story.

My Rating – 4 stars

My Comments – This book was a favorite in my classroom library, partly due to the graphic component. Part of the story is told through comic book format.

3. Sees Behind Trees by  Michael Dorris – 1999

Visually impaired Walnut cannot earn his adult name the same way other boys do, by hitting a target with a bow and arrow. With his highly developed other senses, however, he earns a new name: Sees Behind Trees. “Dorris takes on some meaty existential issues here; he does so with grace, bighearted empathy, and always with crystal-clear vision”. —School Library Journal

My Rating – 4 stars

My Comments – This is a tiny book– only 100 pages– but it makes a big impact.

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4. The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph  – 2000

Twelve-year-old Ana Rosa is a blossoming writer growing up in the Dominican Republic, a country where words are feared. Yet there is so much inspiration all around her — watching her brother search for a future, learning to dance and to love, and finding out what it means to be part of a community — that Ana Rosa must write it all down. As she struggles to find her own voice and a way to make it heard, Ana Rosa realizes the power of her words to transform the world around her — and to transcend the most unthinkable of tragedies.

My Rating – 3 stars

My Comments – This is a sad story, but one with hope through words.

5. Trouble Don’t Last by Shelley Pearsall – 2003

Eleven-year-old Samuel was born as Master Hackler’s slave, and working the Kentucky farm is the only life he’s ever known—until one dark night in 1859, that is. With no warning, cranky old Harrison, a fellow slave, pulls Samuel from his bed and, together, they run.

The journey north seems much more frightening than Master Hackler ever was, and Samuel’s not sure what freedom means aside from running, hiding, and starving. But as they move from one refuge to the next on the Underground Railroad, Samuel uncovers the secret of his own past—and future. And old Harrison begins to see past a whole lifetime of hurt to the promise of a new life—and a poignant reunion—in Canada.

In a heartbreaking and hopeful first novel, Shelley Pearsall tells a suspenseful, emotionally charged story of freedom and family.

My Rating – 3 stars

My Comments – Samuel’s endearing voice is what I remember most about this gripping historical fiction novel.

6. On the Devil’s Court by Carl Deuker – 1991

Summary from Amazon:

What would you give to be your school’s superstar? After reading Dr. Faustus, Joe considers the merits of selling his soul to the devil. Suddenly, he finds himself changing from a lousy basketball player and a C student to the star athlete he always dreamed he could be. Even though he isn’t sure if he actually made a deal with the devil, he can’t help but enjoy the benefits that come with his newfound abilities. But is achieving his dreams worth what he may have given up?

In this coming of age sports novel, Joe learns the power of belief and that the only goals worth attaining are the ones that you earn — on your own.

My Rating – 3 stars

My Comments – I’m not a big fan of sports novels, but the angle that this one took really kept my attention. Fans of Mike Lupica’s books would enjoy this one.

7. My Thirteenth Winter by Samantha Abeel – 2005

In this beautiful and chilling memoir, twenty-five-year-old Samantha Abeel describes her struggles with a math-related learning disability, and how it forced her to find inner strength and courage.

Samantha Abeel couldn’t tell time, remember her locker combination, or count out change at a checkout counter — and she was in seventh grade. For a straight-A student like Samantha, problems like these made no sense. She dreaded school, and began having anxiety attacks. In her thirteenth winter, she found the courage to confront her problems — and was diagnosed with a learning disability. Slowly, Samantha’s life began to change again. She discovered that she was stronger than she’d ever thought possible — and that sometimes, when things look bleakest, hope is closer than you think.

My Rating – 4 stars

My Comments – This is such an important book. Abeel’s descriptions of what her life was like with an undiagnosed learning disability haunted me for weeks after I read it, and her joy at finally getting the help she needed brought tears to my eyes. In my opinion, it is a must read for educators. Also, this summary doesn’t mention the fact that, while Abeel struggled in some areas, she was always a talented writer and poet. After you read My Thirteenth Winter, check out her poetry in Reach for the Moon.

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8. Leslie’s Journal by Allan Stratton – 2000

A gripping story about the dark side of a first love.

Leslie can’t seem to avoid trouble, whether it’s at school or at home. Just as life seems at its lowest, Jason McCready, the exceedingly cool new guy at school, enters her life.

Now Leslie is the envy of all the girls. But Jason’s appearance is deceiving — he is determined to control every aspect of Leslie’s life, and he begins terrorizing her in unimaginable ways.

When a substitute teacher reads the private English-class journal in which Leslie reveals Jason’s abuse, Leslie is suddenly forced into hard choices and terrifying action to take back her life.

Updated to reflect the contemporary world of the Internet, cell phones and text messaging, Leslie’s Journal is a suspenseful, fast-paced story about love, friendship and what it means to stand up for yourself

My Rating – 3 stars

My Comments – Apparently this book has been updated, but I’m pretty certain I read the original version. This story deals with some heavy issues, so it’s for more mature readers.

9. After the Death of Anna Gonzales by Terri Fields – 2002

“I can feel
The whispering of the hallway walls
Growing louder as the groups gather.
Each clique adding to its morning input.

“Did you hear?”
“Who told you?”
“Do you think it’s really true?”

New at this school,
I stand alone.
Watching . . .”

Brutally honest and authentic in tone, this collection of voices centers on the suicide of high school freshman Anna Gonzales. Each piece, read alone, portrays a classmate’s or teacher’s personal reaction to the loss, taken hard by some, by others barely noticed. Read together, the poems create a richly textured and moving testimony to the rippling effects of one girl’s devastating choice. Terri Fields has written a thought-provoking, important work that resonates with both pain and hope. This is a book that will stay with readers long after they put it down.

My Rating – 4 stars

My Comments – There were waiting lists for this book in my classroom library. I couldn’t keep it on my shelves. Students read it until it was falling apart and then eventually it disappeared completely. Teen suicide is a horrible thing, but kids like to read about the hard stuff, and this book deals with it in an honest way. Fans of Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why would be a good fit for this book and it is a very quick read.

10. All Hallows’ Eve: 13 Stories by Vivian Vande Velde – 2006

A boy is trapped in a possessed car that has stalled in the path of an oncoming train. A girl is dragged into a crypt during a field trip to an eighteenth-century cemetery. A group of friends meet their fate after an unsettling visit with a backwoods psychic. And that’s just the beginning. Celebrated author Vivian Vande Velde is at her spine-tingling best in this collection of thirteen scary stories, all of which take place on Halloween night. With tales that range from the disturbing to the downright gruesome, this is one collection that teens will want to read with the lights on . . . and the doors locked.

My Rating – 4 stars

My Comments – I love scary stories and there are some scary stories in this book. Too many horror stories for kids have the Scooby-Doo ending. Oh! It was just Farmer Bob in a mask! Not these. I enjoyed almost all of the 13 stories, but it was the third one– “Morgan Roehmar’s Boys”– that made me sit up and take notice. It reminded me of when I first picked up The Hunger Games back in 2009 and thought, Is she REALLY going to have kids killing kids? Oh, yep. She is. Vivian Vande Velde’s book hit me the same way. Is this real horror or kid horror? Oh, real horror. Got it. Now to check behind me before I keep reading. The stories are both scary and clever, and Velde will keep you on your toes with all the twists. Seriously, go read this book.

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See? Do you see what I’m talking about now?

These are good books, and they deserve more attention.

Go read one of them today!