Speak

Speak Cover

“When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time. You’d be shocked at how many adults are really dead inside—walking through their days with no idea who they are, just waiting for a heart attack or cancer or a Mack truck to come along and finish the job. It’s the saddest thing I know.” – Mr. Freeman

Fear, it is something that can control our lives. It can infect our daily routine and cause us to feel a constant unease that can ruin the most basic of activities. Now ramp that fear up to a traumatic experience and it begins to envelop every aspect of us. Something as basic as looking in the mirror or eating breakfast can be ruined by memories of that experience, and the fear often flows back into our minds again and again. It is this type of fear that Melinda faces in Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel, Speak. The book is a first-person journal of Melinda’s life as she enters high school, as a freshman with no friends. They have all rejected her because she accidentally called the cops to a party in the summer. But they don’t understand that the reason she was calling the police was because she had been raped by a senior in her future school, so she called the police and didn’t know what to say. She remained silent on the line. It is this silence that encapsulates Melinda’s journey throughout the novel, and why it is called Speak.

The big theme that is spread throughout the novel is Melinda’s search for a voice. She struggles to cope with trying to tell someone what happened, which leads her to a state of depression. Her parents don’t help any, as they are both preoccupied with their own lives. Her only friend, Heather, ends up ditching her for a group of more popular girls, and her silence ends up making her a target for some of her teachers in school. The only person that seems to be okay with her silence is her Art teacher, Mr. Freeman, who just tries to nurture Melinda with art, to try and convince her to create something and express herself through her art. It is this nurturing voice and soft guidance that helps Melinda to discover her method of expressing her anxiety, her pain, and, ultimately, her fear. Her ability to find her voice also comes from her will to protect her former best friend Rachel, who began dating Melinda’s rapist not long after the traumatic incident. Melinda wishes to keep her safe, and it is this fear for Rachel that allows Melinda to speak up about being raped and be free of the burden she has carried around for so long.

While I know of a few teachers that have used Speak in their classroom, I was not enthralled with the book. One of my issues with it came from the fact that I did not really connect with Melinda as a character. I feel as though this may be because I have never really felt fear and I have never had a traumatic experience that I have had to work through. I am also a fairly loud individual and rarely feel at a loss for words or feel the need to be reserved in the way I speak. So I was not a fan of the novel; however, unlike my last review, I did feel as though Anderson’s characters were fully fleshed out and were well crafted. I was just unable to connect and struggled to dig into the story. I definitely think it is a viable novel for lit circles, but it has some strong content that I would suggest needs to be used with grade 9 students or higher. For Lit Circles, I would use it with Anderson’s own Twisted, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone or Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall. Each of these books also deals with a traumatic experience that leads the protagonist to look for their voice to express what they had seen or experienced. Speak is a frustratingly good novel that I just didn’t connect with, but will connect with many who have struggled to find their own voice.

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Touching Spirit Bear

Touching Spirit Bear

“What you focus on becomes reality. Everybody carries anger inside. But also happiness.” – Edwin

I am not an outdoorsy person. I am not much of a camper and I have never been all that good with my hands. If I was to be stranded on a deserted island, I would probably have a pretty rough time staying alive. In Ben Mikaelsen’s Touching Spirit Bear, Cole, a teenager potentially on his way to jail for assaulting a fellow student, has his sentence commuted to be a one year wilderness experience, alone on a deserted island on the southeast coast of Alaska. This is meant to be a time of reflection and rebirth for Cole, which is a major theme throughout the novel, but he quickly derails the entire incident. First, he burns down the small cabin that was built for him, including all of the provisions provided for him. Then he decides to try and swim across a large channel of terribly cold water to try and escape, which he fails miserably at. And finally, he attacks a giant white bear, just to prove that he is tougher than the bear. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t go well for Cole and he is left mauled, starving, and lying on a beach in Alaska. The story becomes all about Cole’s deathbed-like experience when he realizes why he has acted out so much over the years and how he can attempt to change.

This theme of rediscovery and healing drives the narrative forward. As Cole spends time on the island, acting brashly, the chapters are mixed with flashbacks of the meetings and experiences Cole went through which landed him on the island, such as his act of violence towards his schoolmate, Peter, his experience with the Circle Justice group in which he lied constantly to try and avoid jail time, and even his retelling of the abuse his father had doled out throughout his childhood. Cole’s epiphany that he has while lying near death on the beach allows him to come to the realization that he acts out because of his need to be in control and to be feared, because that is how he always viewed his father. His realization leads him to seek more help and earns him a second trip to the island, after six months of physical therapy. This is where his real process of rebirth occurs. He learns to channel his anger. Not squelch it, but control it. His growth over time allows him to seek forgiveness, which is the second major theme in the story.

As Cole reaches the end of his one year sentence, he has learned to channel his anger and he has adopted the natural world as a place for him to connect and learn. But, the target of his earlier assault, Peter, has taken a turn for the worse psychologically, and attempts suicide. It becomes Cole’s responsibility to try and convince Peter that his life has value and meaning, and through this, he will hopefully find Peter’s forgiveness for his act of violence. This second journey of redemption and forgiveness is where Cole is truly tested, and it is an interesting journey that he takes to try and help Peter overcome his psychological issues.

In the end, I wasn’t a huge fan of Touching Spirit Bear. I felt the characters were too unbelievable, Cole specifically, and his reactions to things and choices early in the novel left me more frustrated than engaged. I think there are some students that would definitely connect with the broken anti-hero who seeks redemption concept, but it just did not work for me. While the story is one that would be great for many students to read, because it leads them to think outside of themselves and be less selfish, it was not a book that kept me up at night, wanting to read more. If I were to use this story in a Lit Circle setting, I would use it for grade 9 and above and pair it with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone or S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, as they all deal with a troubled past, a challenging experience, or a neglectful parent. Touching Spirit Bear might lead some to find peace and rebirth in nature, but, for an indoorsman like me, it fell flat.

The Eye of Minds

the eye of minds cover

“For the first time in his life, Michael understood why real soldiers coming back from real wars often had a hard time getting over the things they’d seen and done. And had done to them. If Michael had a soul, it was starting to leak out of his hopes.” – James Dashner

When I was growing up, I loved video games. And when I say I loved video games, I mean I spent a lot of my time playing them, researching them, and dreaming about them. At one point in my life, my uncle jokingly asked me if I was building bombs in my basement because of how much time I spent down there playing video games. I love the immersive quality of video games, being able to do fantastic, otherworldly things and embody totally different roles from my real life. Once, on a family trip to Disney World, I tried a virtual reality game, where I put on a visor and had a bunch of wires attached to my arms and legs and I got to stand on this circular tube and run around in a virtual world. I loved it, at least the two minutes I was allowed to play on it. This immersion and need for out of body experiences is what James Dashner plays on in his newest book, The Eye of Minds. In it, Dashner creates a futuristic world where people can enter the Sleep and play in the VirtNet, a virtual world that would put any current video game to shame. In the Sleep, people can live their lives and do things they never thought possible without many consequences for their actions in the real world.

This is the world of Michael, a teenage boy who lives to escape into the VirtNet. His days are spent mostly within the confines of his “coffin” where he is plugged into the VirtNet for hours at a time. While in the Sleep, Michael still feels normal human needs, such as hunger, exhaustion, or even pain, but when he eats within the VirtNet, his coffin feeds his actual body nutrients to help him survive, and when he is injured in the VirtNet, his body actually feels the pain. Michael and his friends are talented hackers, who sometimes break the rules within the games to make them more entertaining or to get ahead. But when one hacker starts to manipulate the system to mess with people’s minds back in the real world, the authorities get involved, and task Michael and his friends to root out the intentions of this evil hacker.

As one could imagine, in a virtual reality setting the pace is often intense and the reader will feel the adrenaline of the characters pumping throughout the story. Much like Dashner’s Maze Runner, Eye of Minds is a thrill ride, with cliffhangers at every turn, making the reader want to delve deeper into the story. The plot is shrouded in enough mystery to keep the reader engaged as well, and when the stakes are raised late in the story, with actual lives on the line, it was hard for me to put the book down.

The most fascinating part for me, as a teacher, was seeing that the book seemed to highlight two skills that Michael needed to survive his ordeal. He needed to be able to collaborate with his friends to be able to hack their way through the trail the hacker, Kaine, had left for them. And he needed to think critically, to problem solve under pressure with, sometimes, severe consequences to his choices. These are skills that we are training our students to develop, and to see a virtual reality themed book focusing on these two skills just shows that we are hitting the right mark with our goals of training our students to have 21st Century Skills. I am not saying we are training our students to become hackers who will try and save the world, but it is encouraging to see a book highlighting those skills in a semi-tangible way for students to understand.

Overall, The Eye of Minds is an engaging read that would draw in students who are fans of video games or technology. It isn’t the deepest book, which makes it a bit difficult to use within Lit Circles, but the book is not overly challenging to read and could be engaging enough for some struggling readers if it is a theme they would enjoy. There is some violence and traumatic psychological experiences in the story, so I would recommend this for a grade 9 level or higher. For Lit Circles, I would pair this book with M.T. Anderson’s Feed, as it deals with a connection to a constant online presence, or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Dashner’s own Maze Runner, as they are both thrill rides that allow struggling readers to feel engaged in the pacing of the narrative. The Eye of Minds gives the reader an interesting glimpse into a possible future where teens are more engaged by a virtual reality world than the real life one they live in.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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“Do you understand how amazing it is to hear that from an adult? Do you know how amazing it is to hear that from anybody? It’s one of the simplest sentences in the world, just four words, but they’re the four hugest words in the world when they’re put together.
You can do it.” – Arnold Spirit Jr.

Everyone deals with their insecurities in their own way. Some people lash out at others, becoming bullies to hurt others so they don’t feel their own pain. Some people compensate with material possessions, or vices, or busy-ness, something to keep their minds occupied. For Arnold Spirit Jr., or Junior as he is known to most, comedy and comics are the way to cope. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the story of Junior, a fourteen year old boy who has a myriad of things to feel insecure about, such as his physical problems from being born with an excess of cerebrospinal fluid, or “water on the brain”, or his seizures, or his terrible eyesight requiring thick glasses, or his lisp, or his stutter, or the fact that he ends up leaving the reservation school to go to an all-white school of middle class kids where he doesn’t know anyone. With a list of insecurities that long, many would want to just curl up and cry, but Junior is a tenacious young man, and he doesn’t let his insecurities get in the way of his life, well at least he tries not to.

I will be honest with you, Absolutely True Diary is one of my all-time favourite Young Adult fiction books, so if you want to save yourself some time, just go buy it and read it and then use it in your classes…Are you still here? Okay, well, let me tell you why it is so fantastic. The coming-of-age bildungsroman story found within Alexie’s pages is so honest, realistically comical, and relatable that you can’t help but be drawn into the world of Reardan High School and the Wellpinit Spokane Reservation. Junior’s frankness is so fresh and awkward that fellow nerds, like myself, feel the connection that drives the continual turning of the page. The hope he shares within his “diary” shows a boy looking to the future, while being bogged down by a lack of hope living on the rez. The issues he faces and the almost-normalness of his life makes Junior so perfect as a protagonist that students can connect with.

The biggest theme in the book, for me, was the focus on race and the magnified differences between whites and First Nations. Throughout the story, Junior details the differences between life on the rez and life for the rich white kids he ends up going to school with. He talks about the lack of hope for the future on the rez and a life full of dreams and future prospects inside the white high school. He talks about the challenges of being the only aboriginal kid in a school where the only other First Nations person is the school’s mascot. And he describes the very heavy and heartbreaking issue of alcoholism on the rez, with some very sad results sprinkled throughout the story. Alexie deals with all these issues with great control and is able to show how damaging racism can be, but also how they can become non-issues with the right people.

Like I said, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one of the best YA books I have ever read. It provides a great balance of relatability and comedy, of heartbreak and hopefullness. I have used this book in my class for silent reading and most students have really enjoyed it. There is easily enough depth to this novel to dive deep into it for Lit Circles as well, and a fellow teacher used it last year in his First Peoples English class. This book is great for students in grade 9 or higher, due to some PG-13 situations and humour that Junior uses, but I plan on using it this year in my classes. For Lit Circles, I would pair this book with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted, Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go, or Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, as they all deal with fitting in to a new culture or dealing with race or gender separation. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a fantastic story of challenging the expectations of those around you and overcoming the obstacles that life throws in your way, all with an immense sense of humour.

Eragon

Eragon cover

“It’s amazing that a man who is dead can talk to people through these pages. As long as this book survives, his ideas live.” – Eragon

One thing I think a lot of people dream of when they are children is having some sort of mythological creature as a pet. Whether it is a unicorn, griffin, or pegasus, many a child longs for a magical beast that could ferry them through the sky or protect them from their bullies. For me, that beast was a dragon. I mean come one, who wouldn’t want to be able to ride a dragon, with its powerful wings, intimidating jaws, and flaming breath. There is even a movie depicting children training dragons to be their pets. In Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, one lucky teen gets the chance to fulfill that dream. Eragon, the title character, is a 15 year old orphan, living with his uncle in a small town on the outskirts of Alagaësia. While hunting in the mountains, he finds a beautiful stone that in time he discovers to be a dragon egg. He makes a connection with the dragon, who is much more intelligent than most dragons portrayed in Hollywood films. Eragon names her Saphira and they form a deep bond as they struggle to hide Saphira’s presence from Eragon’s family and the local populace. In the end, the evil king Galbatorix’s minions, the Ra’zac, are sent to retrieve the egg, and in the process murder Eragon’s uncle. This leads to Eragon going on a quest for revenge, taking Brom, the local storyteller with an inordinate amount of knowledge of dragons, with him.

Eragon does a very good job of creating setting in the story. Reminiscent of Tolkien or even Steinbeck, Paolini spends plenty of words describing the setting of the book. With vast landscapes and varied cities and villages, Paolini does a good job of painting a picture of Alagaësia for the reader. This can be very useful for students who struggle to create the images in their minds, or those who love a well-developed setting. Again, much like Tolkien, Paolini invested a huge amount of time in creating the cultures and languages of the peoples of Alagaësia. Using old languages and myth to help him, he created languages for the elves, dwarves, and even an ancient magical language for Eragon to learn while wielding magic. The story is filled with a history that is slowly doled out to the reader as Eragon discovers it himself, making lovers of fantasy history turn the page to find out what they will learn next.

The problem with Eragon is that it lacks substance. While Paolini is very good at painting a picture and creating a backstory for his world, he is not as strong in creating a deep meaning behind his character’s actions. Eragon seems to be driven by a basic need for revenge, not necessarily the most heroic endeavor. And while he does try to show his hatred for the evils in his world, such as slavery or poverty, the motivations he shows lack conviction. There are no big topics tackled, and no great changes come to those who read it, but it is an engaging novel that was fairly entertaining throughout.

I would have a hard time suggesting that this book be used in a Lit Circles setting. With so little substance, students would find it hard to write responses that carried depth. However, I do think this is a great novel for students who enjoy fantasy stories for silent reading. Paolini has a strong vocabulary and will engage students who enjoy reading, but the over-descriptive nature of the prose will probably ward of struggling readers. I would recommend it for grade 10 and higher, although strong younger readers could tackle the story as well. If I were to use this with Lit Circles, I would pair it with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go, or John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice Series, mostly for the descriptive similarities and fantasy-based content. Eragon is a fantastical story of a young man and a dragon on an adventure to change their world and is a great story for fans of the fantasy genre.

I Am Number Four

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“I am an alien, I have extraordinary powers, with more to come, and I can do things that no human would dream of, but I still look like a fool.”– John Smith

Super heroes, they are a staple of American pop culture. The last ten years or so have seen an explosion of super hero enthusiasm, with the relaunching of comic book series, several super hero Hollywood films, and the veritable slew of products that come from these films. Most people love the idea of super heroes, people gifted with amazing abilities that allow them to do incredible acts of bravery. These extraordinary powers are what James Frey & Jobie Hughes, who write the I Am Number Four series under the pseudonym Pittacus Lore, use to develop their lead character John Smith, or Number Four. John is a young alien from a planet called Lorien that was ravaged by another alien race known as the Mogadorians. John and eight other Lorics are chosen to continue their heritage and save their race by fleeing to earth. They are enchanted so that the Mogadorians, who have followed them to earth, must kill each Loric in order from One to Nine. These nine have been gifted with powers, known as Legacies, which do not manifest until around the age of puberty for humans. Each Loric must train so that one day they will be able to fight the Mogadorians and reclaim their planet.

Using the first-person narrative style, Frey & Hughes are able to get the reader inside the head of John Smith and have them follow the anxiety, fear, and lying that he must deal with on a daily basis. The reader quickly connects with John because of his loneliness and his inability to get close to teens his age and open up about his past. John and his Cepan, a father/guide figure, have constantly been on the run their whole lives, fearing discovery by the Mogs, so John has had a very stunted childhood. This is a very engaging aspect to the story, as the reader feels John’s pain, as many teens have dealt with the inability to fit in, to connect with others, or to open up to those around them. As John develops relationships with his friend Sam, a conspiracy theorist loner, and Sarah, John’s love interest, he begins to open up to them and trust humans for the first time. But this also leads to conflict between John and his Cepan, Henri, who does not trust easily. John goes through the familiar struggles of a teen, friction at home, rebellion, and the inevitable reconciliation, but it is this trope that helps make the story more engaging for teen readers.

Hope and trust are some of the significant themes that develop out of the story. It is the life of fear and lack of faith in those around them that lays the foundation for John and Henri to develop and change their attitudes over time, with John putting a lot of faith in those around him, including trusting his bully, Mark, from earlier in the story. The theme seems to say, you cannot trust everyone, but it is the friends in your life that are the ones you are meant to trust. It is the hope of someday making a difference for his planet that John continues to fight, and it is trust in his friends that allows him to survive the continued attacks of the Mogadorians.

I Am Number Four is a fast-paced, engaging story. The prose is not overly challenging, so struggling readers can follow the story fairly easily. I recommend it for grade 9 and up, and have used it with my students that are not overly excited about reading, and they have taken to the storyline. There is not a lot of deep content in the books, but there is good character development and enough meat to allow students to write meaningful responses. I would pair this book with Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go, or James Dashner’s Maze Runner, as all deal with the concept of the protagonist trusting those around them and developing that reliance on them to survive. It is a great book for those who love to live vicariously through the over-powered world of super heroes.

Leviathan

Leviathan

“Maybe this was how you stayed sane in wartime: a handful of noble deeds amid the chaos”– Alek

What if? It is one of the great questions asked about history. What if one of the plans to assassinate Hitler had been successful? What if Rome had not been sacked by the Goths? What if Darwin had not made his scientific theories about evolution? The answers to these questions will never be known, but many authors have taken this concept and put it into print. Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan is one of those books. Leviathan takes the era around World War One and changes the setting somewhat. The global powers are not divided based on old alliances, but based around their reliance on either steam-powered engines and war machines, which dubs those people the Clankers, or genetically fabricated beasts, which gives those nations the name the Darwinists, due to Darwin’s genetic discoveries. Westerfeld has created a fascinating alternate universe in which two differing paths of science have created world-wide allegiances. But, much like the state of affairs in Europe leading up to 1914, the European superpowers wanted to start a war and test their technological power.

However, Leviathan is not a novel about the grandly sweeping movement of a World War and the interactions of world powers, it is the story of a young prince forced from his home by his own nation, it is the story of a young girl hiding her gender from the British Air Service to escape into the airborne world, it is the intertwining of these two stories. Alek is the heir to the Hapsburg dynasty in Austria-Hungary after his parents are assassinated, but his country does not want him to take control, so he must run for his life. Deryn is a girl, dealing with the loss of her father and the attempt of her mother to “girlify” her, so she lies about her gender and joins the British Air Service. Once they come together, the two bond over common backgrounds, although one is a commoner and one is royalty, as they both have lost their fathers and they both have a secret to keep, Alek hiding his royalty and Deryn hiding her gender. They also end up working together against a common enemy, as the old saying goes “an enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Courage is a strong theme throughout the book, as both protagonists must overcome their fears and obstacles to support their countrymen. Deryn is constantly trying to keep her fellow crewmen alive and fight for her country. Alek risks his own life and safety to save the downed crew of a massive British Air Service beast. Both must test their boundaries as they push to keep their men safe and prove their worth to their elders. This is a common theme for war novels, as it is often the courage of singular men and women that helps contribute to the victories of nations. Leviathan is no different in its presentation of war and its impact on those involved, but Westerfeld puts the reader in the shoes of two teens experiencing this steampunk war first hand. This allows students to be more engaged in a war novel by seeing from someone in their age group.

I would recommend this book for grades 7 and up, as the plot moves fairly quickly and the vocabulary is not overly challenging; however, I would also recommend it to students who have covered World War One and could make comparisons to that which they have learned about it previously. The story is engaging, and the theme of courage is one that is always interesting for students who want to life vicariously through the adventures of others in novels. For Lit Circles, I would pair it with Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Veronica Roth’s Divergent, or Lisa McMann’s The Unwanteds,as they all deal with the need for courage in the face of danger or war erupting around them. I enjoyed Leviathan, especially the steam punk alternate universe, but it was not quite as engaging for me as Westerfeld’s Uglies was. I am hoping that the second book in the series, Behemoth, will ramp up the excitement.