Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Salt to the Sea

Sepetys, Ruta. Salt to the Sea. Philomel Books, 2016.
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Summary (from
In 1945, World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer toward safety. Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.
A tribute to the people of Lithuania, Poland, and East Prussia, Ruta Sepetys unearths a shockingly little-known casualty of a gruesome war, and proves that humanity can prevail, even in the darkest of hours.

My Thoughts
This is a well researched historical fiction book, but I felt like I was reading narrative nonfiction. Refugees are fleeing Germany during WWII. The story is told from the 4 characters (Joana, Florian, Emilia, and Alfred) points of view, but there are other characters who hold a prominent place. Each story is not what it seems at first. I liked how the opening lines of each character was parallel ("_____ is a hunter" (Sepetys 1, 3, 5,7).  Each character had a different noun hunting them. Sepetys brought this noun hunter back around towards the end of the novel.

One of my favorite, non-main characters was the "shoemaker poet." He often said, "the shoes always tell the story." How wise he was about that.

At one point, I thought of how these refugees were almost like the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. We, as the reader, are traveling along and learning about their lives.

I did not like Alfred the more I learned of him. At first, I thought he was just imaginative.  Florian realizes that Alfred is "a sociapath in training" (Sepetys 280). Yes, I would agree!

The title reference is on page 357.

The ending chapters of this book are so vivid. I felt like I saw what the characters saw (I don't want to ruin it here, but it is full of emotion).

Sepetys includes an author's note at the back that explains to the reader how she came to write this story. It is not biographical, but she does honor her family's heritage by writing about this event. She also includes other sources for information.

ADDED 5/8/17--I got to meet Ruta Sepetys at TLA this year!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Outsiders

Hinton, S.E. The Outsiders. Speak, 2012.
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My Thoughts
Don't tell my Upward Bound kids, but I think this is the novel for the summer. It celebrates 50 years, so I think it's worthy of study. Besides, this was one of the first YA novels (long before the term "YA" existed). Since we studied the first English novel last year, I think it's appropriate to study the first YA novel this year.

I have a history with this book...sort of...

When I was in high school, one of the 9th grade English teachers taught The Outsiders. My 9th grade English class read a different Hinton book, Tex.  I still have my copy and remember a part where Tex is told some people stay and some people go. I knew at 14 I was leaving my hometown as soon as I graduated (I did move away to attend college and have never left that town. I was the only one of my running buddies that left home.). It's been many years since I was in 9th grade, and this book has been on my virtual pile. It wasn't until a couple of years ago when I heard Ally Carter speak about how Hinton influenced her to become a writer that I thought, "Man! I've really got to read that book!" Yes, by then, I'd seen the movie, but I know how books are usually better than the movie interpretation.  Earlier this school year, I was hearing some buzz about this being the 50th year since publishing and made a note that this would be a Upward Bound summer novel possibility.
So a few weeks ago, I was trying to get an Ally Carter book read before hearing her speak at a conference when I decided that after Carter's book, I would FINALLY read this one.

I'll have to watch it again to see how close it follows the book, but I had movie images in my head while I read. I couldn't remember which character was which, but I do remember Patrick Swayze being the oldest brother.

As I read, I kept thinking about how teenagers today can still identify with Ponyboy and his gang (even if we don't use the Greaser or Socs terms)--we still separate ourselves. We still want to feel needed and loved and part of something. I think this will be my approach in teaching this book.

I like that there's very little cussing in this book. It's alluded to, but not printed out.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Reynolds, Jason. Ghost: Track: Book 1. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016.
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Plot Summary (from
Ghost wants to be the fastest sprinter on his elite middle school track team, but his past is slowing him down in this first electrifying novel of a brand-new series from Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award–winning author Jason Reynolds.

Ghost. Lu. Patina. Sunny. Four kids from wildly different backgrounds with personalities that are explosive when they clash. But they are also four kids chosen for an elite middle school track team—a team that could qualify them for the Junior Olympics if they can get their acts together. They all have a lot to lose, but they also have a lot to prove, not only to each other, but to themselves.

Ghost has a crazy natural talent, but no formal training. If he can stay on track, literally and figuratively, he could be the best sprinter in the city. But Ghost has been running for the wrong reasons—it all starting with running away from his father, who, when Ghost was a very little boy, chased him and his mother through their apartment, then down the street, with a loaded gun, aiming to kill. Since then, Ghost has been the one causing problems—and running away from them—until he meets Coach, an ex-Olympic Medalist who blew his own shot at success by using drugs, and who is determined to keep other kids from blowing their shots at life.

My Thoughts
I hadn't read anything by Jason Reynolds before this book (even though I'd planned to before seeing him at NTTBF). Reynolds is a thoughtful speaker, so I was happy to buy his latest book (and get him to sign it!). I was excited that it was a track story because I don't have very many in my library.

This is the story of Ghost (a self given nickname). As someone who kinda runs and has never had formal training, I'm glad Reynolds explained the track terminology and workouts. As Ghost learned about training, so did I. I actually thought about copying some of the things down for my own workouts. 

This is a quick read geared to middle grade, but I can think of some high schoolers who will enjoy it, too.  I really liked that the coach was a positive role model and seemed to genuinely understand, love and push his team. I also felt such empathy for Ghost because I knew that he really wanted to make "good" choices, but it seemed circumstances got in the way. I know so many kids who deal (or not) with similar situations.  
The story has some real, emotional struggles, but there is also humor, including the chapter titles! 

I'm not sure what I want to write about with this book except I hated the ending---only because it sets up the next book and that won't come out for awhile (I'd read somewhere August 2017). 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

All Fall Down

Carter, Ally. All Fall Down: An Embassy Row Novel. Scholastic Press, 2015.

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Plot Summary (From

Grace Blakely is absolutely certain of three things:
1. She is not crazy.
2. Her mother was murdered.
3. Someday she is going to find the killer and make him pay.
As certain as Grace is about these facts, nobody else believes her–so there’s no one she can completely trust. Not her grandfather, a powerful ambassador. Not her new friends, who all live on Embassy Row. Not Alexei, the Russian boy next door who is keeping an eye on Grace for reasons she neither likes nor understands.
Everybody wants Grace to put on a pretty dress and a pretty smile, blocking out all her unpretty thoughts. But they can’t control Grace–no more than Grace can control what she knows or what she needs to do.
Her past has come back to hunt her . . .  and if she doesn’t stop it, Grace isn’t the only one who will get hurt. Because on Embassy Row, the countries of the world all stand like dominoes, and one wrong move can make them all fall down.
My Thoughts
Ally Carter was at the TLA 2015 Teen Day. This is how long I've had this book on my pile. This is how long it's been staring at me across my office to be read. This is how long others have read it and raved about Ally Carter.

Well, Ally was coming to NTTBF (North Texas Teen Book Festival), and I was determined to read one of her books before hearing her speak again. I almost got this one finished before the event.

I enjoyed it. The story has suspense and intrigue without gore. Grace's mother was murdered. Grace saw it happen (so she thinks). When she returns to the city of the crime, she just cannot shake that people are lying to her. She must find her mom's killer. I'm glad that Carter drops clues and red herrings into the story. I didn't figure it all out five chapters into the book. In fact, I didn't know how this book would end until it did.

Knowing there are already two other books in this series, I chuckled when I saw their titles embedded into this story. I wondered if that was Carter's intention (Did she already know the arc of the series?).

I liked the different characters from each embassy. I think I'm most like Ms. Chancellor (but I think there's MUCH more to her story than I realize from book 1). I will continue reading Grace's story, but before I do, I'm going to read S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders because Ally Carter talked about her and this book in 2015, and that's been on my pile, too.


Murphy, Julie. Dumplin' : Go Big or Go Home. Harper Collins, 2015.
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Summary (from
Dubbed “Dumplin’” by her former beauty queen mom, Willowdean has always been at home in her own skin. Her thoughts on having the ultimate bikini body? Put a bikini on your body. With her all-American-beauty best friend, Ellen, by her side, things have always worked . . .  until Will takes a job at Harpy’s, the local fast-food joint. There she meets Private School Bo, a hot former jock. Will isn’t surprised to find herself attracted to Bo. But she is surprised when he seems to like her back.  
Instead of finding new heights of self-assurance in her relationship with Bo, Will starts to doubt herself. So she sets out to take back her confidence by doing the most horrifying thing she can imagine: entering the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant—along with several other unlikely candidates—to show the world that she deserves to be up there as much as any twiggy girl does. Along the way, she’ll shock the hell out of Clover City—and maybe herself most of all.

My Thoughts
This book is HILARIOUS! The author captures so many elements of living in Texas. I even wrote in my notes about this book these "nuggets of wisdom, things as a Southerner, I just understand." I wondered if readers from other states would even see some of the nuances. The story can be enjoyed without it, but there are just some things that are funnier knowing (I'm specifically thinking right now about the judging committee. I shared that part with two different people I sat near because it was so descriptive and funny!).
"You don't always have to win to wear a crown" (Murphy 67).
This is the story of Willowdean Dickson. She is overweight and lives in a small Texas town (fictitious Clover City) known for its beauty pageant, "Miss Teen Blue Bonnet." Her mother won years ago and now heads up the planning committee to pull off the event. When Will decides she's going to enter the contest, she begins a crusade that will not only affect her but her town as well.

I heard Murphy at TLA last year (2016) on a panel called Humor in YA Lit. I'd seen some buzz about the book, but just didn't pick it up until this spring. It fulfilled the humor part, but it wasn't just laugh after laugh. (Although I often wrote "HA!" in my notes). There are some serious moments (e.g., Will's friend confides in her about having sex).

I was pleased how friendships formed in this story and appreciate that Murphy explores many levels of relationships. I loved that in trying to honor her aunt's memory, Will learns some wonderful truths about her aunt. I liked the honestly of the writing and the characters.

I also liked how this story linked with The Serpent King (by Jeff Zentner) that I finished reading before this book. Both novels are set in small towns where the kids are eager to leave and both have a connection to Dolly Parton. I always enjoy when I see connective threads between the books I read.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

SYMPHONY FOR THE CITY OF THE DEAD Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad

Anderson, M. T. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. Brilliance Audio, 2015.

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Summary (from AudioFile)

M.T. Anderson narrates his own extensively researched work in a gentle, emphatic tenor, simultaneously methodical and sympathetic. Although his discussion focuses on Shostakovich's personal experiences, Anderson incorporates a great deal of historical information, using primary sources and detailed accounts of events to give listeners an immersive account of one of Russia's darkest periods. With a balanced, impartial tone, Anderson recounts the daily lives of Shostakovich's friends, family, and fellow citizens amid the actions of corrupt dictators, outlining how machinations from above affected ordinary people. Anderson's use of Shostakovich's music and his thorough, direct approach as an author and narrator make this an immersive listen for music and history enthusiasts alike. K.S.B. © AudioFile 2016, Portland, Maine [Published: JANUARY 2016]

My Thoughts
This was a very interesting "read," and I enjoyed hearing the author read his own work. It seems to be well researched. It is a story that I don't know much about the history. It took me a long time to listen to the book because (1) it is long--10 parts and (2) I wasn't driving as much as usual, which is where I listen to books the most. 

  • I am thankful for listening to the Russian words. I'm not sure I'd stuck with this in print. 
  • I liked the music in the background. It seemed to bring Shostakovich's music truly to life. 
  • I loved when I heard about the librarians in Leningrad and Moscow. GO LIBRARIANS! 
  • My stomach often churned at the horror that Anderson describes of what was happening in Russia during the time of the book.
I ordered this book for our library. I think it's a part of the world's history that we (Americans) should learn.