Recommendation Wednesday: Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

Because, my dear friends, these twelve children have lived their entire lives without a public library. As a result, they have no idea how extraordinarily useful, helpful, and funful—a word I recently invented—a library can be. This is their chance to discover that a library is more than a collection of dusty old books. It is a place to learn, explore, and grow!

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by  Chris Grabenstein is SO FUN. It’s sort of a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory/Westing Game hybrid. Mr. Lemoncello is this super eccentric rich dude who builds the world’s greatest library and then holds a contest for a selection of kids. And the contest is a scavenger hunt/the world’s best board game. I mean.

The book is one huge love letter to reading, authors, libraries, and librarians. Oh, and to smart kids and games, of course.

The kids are so great, but if I had to pick a favorite it would be Sierra. She is THE BEST. She plays the game, but she’s much more interested in exploring the books and reading. I love her.

There were a lot of allusions to tons of books (most of which were super easy to get, but it is a middle grade novel, so that makes sense). I started making a list, but then stopped because it got too long. So, the books/authors mentioned either outright or via allusion are:

  • The Giver
  • The Hunger Games
  • Oh, the Places You Will GoEscape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • When You Reach Me
  • One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
  • Frederick Douglass
  • The Westing Game
  • Ella Enchanted
  • The Great Gilly Hopkins
  • The Red Pyramid
  • Maniac Magee
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • Great Expectations
  • Goodnight Moon
  • From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
  • Bridge to Terabithia
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
  • The Three Musketeers
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events
  • Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
  • The Phantom Tollbooth
  • The Wind in the Willows
  • Tuck Everlasting
  • The Rats of NIMH
  • Al Capone Does My Shirts

And that is an incomplete list! Basically, a book or author is referenced on every single page. EVERY PAGE. <3 <3 <3 <3

The book is not without its flaws (the characters are kind of flat, the ending a bit predictable), but I really enjoyed the emphasis on teamwork and, of course, how much awesomeness there is to find at the library. Love the library. LOVE the library, and therefore love this book.

Recommendation Wednesday: Charm & Strange

I am of charm and strange.




At first I wasn’t sure if I would consider Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn a recommendation or not. I only gave it three stars on Goodreads to start. Because it was sad.

(Yes, I know. This is not the first nor will it be the last book that will get points off for sadness even if, you know, that’s part of the point of the book.)

Ultimately, though, I have decided to mark it as a recommendation because I cannot stop thinking about it.

Charm & Strange by Stephanie KuehnIn fact, this book has a lot in common with Pointe by Brandy Colbert, a book I recommended a few weeks ago. Both books deal with teens who have endured a trauma, and both explore how the teens deal with that trauma.

Charm & Strange differs from Pointe in that main character Drew’s trauma occurred when he was around 9 whereas Theo from Pointe’s trauma occurred at 13. While it may not seem like a big difference, it actually is. Because Drew was so young, his trauma affected what is referred to in the text as his system of meaning–how he understands and relates to the world. Homeboy is disturbed.

Charm & Strange is almost impossible to talk about without spoilers, especially since the book is written specifically to keep Drew’s trauma hidden until he’s able to discuss it. In fact, the point of view is part of why I wasn’t sure if I would recommend this. At times, I found it off-putting. There is SO MUCH narrative distance that it’s hard to connect with Drew, even though the reader is in his head. Again, given the trauma and the narrative that makes perfect sense—and works really well for the novel—but that distance makes it hard to connect with Drew (which, again, is the point. Still). I found myself wishing it were in third person so the distance wouldn’t feel so great, but Drew is so disconnected from himself that the first person shows that more clearly.

However, in the end, it all pays off and makes perfect sense.

So what I liked about this book:

- I like that the catalyst for change is a girl, but not in the ways that are typical of most current YA novels. Jordan is new to the school and curious about Drew, so is willing to talk to him and ask him questions, which most of his classmates don’t do or have learned not to do.

- I really like that his former roommate looks out for him even as Drew tries to push him away. And why? Because he knows Drew’s secret, one of the things Drew thinks distances him from other people.

- The characters are really well-drawn even when the reader only gets glimpses of them. Some great character work here. And Drew’s brother! Oh my heart. Just…right in the gut. He broke my heart the most.

- I really, really, really like that these kids realize they’re in way over their heads with Drew and get adult help in the end.

- More importantly, the book shows the power of one or two people actually paying attention and how much of a difference that can make in a person’s life. The book isn’t preachy at all about that, by the way, but the message is there.

- While the story is sad (so very, very sad), it is ultimately hopeful as almost all good YA is.

- Oh, and it should be pointed out that the cover matches the book perfectly.

In conclusion: This is a complex and satisfying read that I could not stop thinking about after I finished it. It is a little dark, though, so be prepared for that.

Source: Library


My goal has been to post once a week since I require my students to do so. And I have been doing really well! And then…grading. Sooo much grading. In fact, I have entered what I like to call grading hell. Grading hell is that point when there is nothing to do but grade. I mean, yes, there are other things to do, but the grading that isn’t being done is all-consuming.

This is what grading hell looks like.

This is what grading hell looks like.


The grading becomes ever more all-consuming when other things are going on that make it hard to get to grading. Things like my kid having activities. Or having to do lesson planning/class prep. Or standing committee meetings–that require their own prep. Or other commitments that I made before realizing that I would be in grading hell.

So life, basically.

I have a rule that I don’t grade on weekends, but I had to break that rule last weekend. I also broke it this weekend. I had a three-day weekend and spent basically all day Friday grading. Because I know how to have fun.

The good news is that I made a very significant dent in the grading. The bad news is that I am still not done.

Still. Not. Done.  The stack on the right is what I finished. The stack on the left is what I still have left to do.

Still. Not. Done.
The stack on the right is what I finished. The stack on the left is what I still have left to do.

Anyway, I’m taking Saturday and Sunday off from grading and hoping, hoping, hoping that next week will be more conducive to making even more of a dent in that left pile. The dream is that I’ll be finished with it completely by Friday. (That is the dream.)

We’ll see how it goes. I mean, I would really love to be able to watch some TV shows as they air this week. Or even one! That would be nice.

So, this still counts as a post for the week, even if it is slightly off-topic.

Top Ten Books for Readers Who Like Character Driven Novels

“…everybody, every single person has a story to tell. Every single ordinary person has an extraordinary story. We might all think that we are unremarkable, that our lives are boring, just because we aren’t doing ground-breaking things or making headlines or winning awards. But the truth is we all do something that is fascinating, that is brave, that is something we should be proud of. Every day people do things that are not celebrated. That is what we should be writing about.”  — from One Hundred Names by Cecelia Ahern

Character driven novels are my FAVORITE, so this week’s Top Ten Tuesday is speaking to my soul. Links go to my reviews, either here or on Goodreads.

1. Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King — Vera’s relationships with her dad and Charlie drive this novel. Such a great look at friendship and secrets.

2. Orange Mint and Honey by Carleen Brice — This is a story about an adult child of an alcoholic who moves back home and attempts to have a relationship with her mother. Not that I could relate to it or anything.

3. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones — Awesome characters. AWESOME CHARACTERS. I mean, even the worst of them is sympathetic.

4. Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr — Oh, this book is so honest and heartbreaking. All about family and forgiveness.

5. This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen — It’s hard to pick a favorite Dessen, but I really related to main character Remy, so this one gets my vote. (Dreamland is probably her best, though.)

6. Sharing Sam by Katherine Applegate — This is one of my favorite books of all time, and it centers on a girl who is falling in love with the boy her best friend has a crush on while said best friend is dying.

7. Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger — The story of Samar, a girl who has to confront her Indian heritage five days after the September 11th attacks when her turbaned, Sikh uncle shows up on her doorstep.

8. Getting Over Garrett Delaney by Abby McDonald — Main character Sadie finds herself after realizing her crush on best friend Garrett will never come to fruition.

9. Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby — I loved this story about lonely people finding each other.

10. Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green — This one is all about what drives a Jewish girl in America during WWII to decide to help a German POW escape.

I think what I love so much about character driven stories is that they’re about ordinary people. I’m not really big on Chosen One stories or Extraordinary Individual stories because most of us are just ordinary and going about our day to day lives. Things shake them up, yes, but thinking about how we interact with our families and what our relationships say about us is what I really love to read.

(And, yes, I know that extraordinary individuals are usually just regular people, but stories about them become so much more than that.) (I have a whole rant in me about black biopics and how they send the message that regular black folks don’t have great stories, too, but just thinking about it exhausts me. So if you want to know what I mean by extraordinary individuals, that’s what I mean–that somehow you have to be special to have a story told about you.)

Recommendation Wednesday: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Jenny HanThis week’s Recommendation Wednesday post is also a part of Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe challenge!

So, I really liked To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han.

For one thing, it features a regular teen doing (mostly) regular things. There are two big conflicts in the story. One is that Lara Jean’s sister has left home, so Lara Jean is trying to figure out her place in her family/how to be the big sister. The other one is that the secret letters she has written all of her former crushes have somehow (and it’s pretty easy to figure out how, though I love that Lara Jean seriously doesn’t figure it out on her own) been sent to them.

That’s it.


As I’ve said before, I really love to see teens doing regular teen things in books because family/school life is fraught with drama. All of the extra stuff that most authors pile on their main characters are just not within the realm of most teens’ experiences.


The real highlight of this book for me, though, is that it features fake dating. FAKE DATING. I love fake dating stories. Because I know that eventually one or both of them will fall for the other, and it is glorious figuring out the moment it goes from fake to real. I LOVE IT.

This is a thing I didn’t even really knew I loved until I was excited that it showed up in this story.

So. Fake dating. Yes.

Lara Jean also has a completely unrequited and borderline inappropriate crush on her sister’s boyfriend, which is also delightful. Because I love unrequited love! It is where I live, so it speaks to me.

Plus, you know, throw in all the sister stuff, and I was in my happy place.A More Diverse Universe 2014

Also, I looooooove the cover.

All in all, this was a really solid and fun story.


Recommendation Wednesday: Pointe

This week’s Recommendation Wednesday post is brought to you by Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe challenge. The parameters for the challenge are very simple:

  • Read and review one book
  • Written by a person of color
  • During the last two weeks of September (September 14th – 27th)

So, one book I’m highlighting for the challenge is Pointe by Brandy Colbert.

Pointe by Brandy ColbertI really liked this book, even though it is super dark. (And by super dark I mean it deals with really dark subject matter: child abduction and child rape.) While the book does deal with heavy subject matter, I think what keeps it from being too is that Colbert keeps the focus on main character Theo and her relationships with her friends, her parents, and, of course, ballet. So while the book starts with Theo’s childhood best friend Donovan returning home after being abducted, the story is mainly about how Theo navigates her feelings about it while going about her day to day life.

That means, of course, going to school every day and dealing with everything that goes along with that. And keeping up with ballet practice.

Because Theo interacts so much with so many other characters–all of whom are affected by Donovan’s return in some way, though none as directly or deeply as Theo–the narrative takes much needed breaks from the turmoil Theo feels because she has to do stuff like run the concession booth at school.

God, I’m making this sound boring. It’s not.

What I Liked
– That cover!

- Theo is a fascinating character who is friends with fascinating characters. She is flawed and believably so. Honestly, I just wanted to give her a big old hug when the story was over.

- I really love that Theo is screwed up and comes from a normal family. She has loving parents, she has a relatively good life, but at the same time, her life is a mess. So often in literature, there’s a straight line from trauma to family, and in this one, there is no straight line. Theo’s parents love her and they’re involved, but she’s just…a mess. And that’s something that happens in real life.

- I also love that, ultimately, Theo has to ask for and get help from adults because her problems are so big that she can’t tackle them on her own.

What I Didn’t Like
– The book isn’t perfect. One thing my book club agreed on is that we wish there had been more ballet and more of Theo processing her feelings through ballet. (The cover is misleading in that way. Though Theo is a ballerina, the cover makes it seem as though dance is the crux of the story. It’s not. The story is about a dancer, not about dance.) And one woman thought the book read a little like tragedy porn. So those are things to be aware of.

In conclusion: While more of a focus on the use of dance to process feelings would have been nice, the characters (especially main character Theo), relationships, and overall plotting make this an engrossing and worthwhile read.

Movies Based on Books: Think Like a Man

(source: IMP Awards)

(source: IMP Awards)

I was flipping channels one Saturday and came across Think Like a Man on VH1.

This is an odd little movie that is also a typical (fun) rom-com. Most of the weirdness comes from the fact that the movie is based on the self-help book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man by Steve Harvey, and, in the movie, the women are reading the book and Steve Harvey makes appearances throughout discussing the points in the book. Those appearances are played as interviews on talk shows, but it’s so meta and breaking the fourth wall that it feels like a huge commercial for the book.

Which it is, I guess. The book plays prominently in the story. Not only do the women carry the book around with Harvey promoting it in the background, but the men also read and discuss it. I mean, if the point is to show what happens to women who read the book and the men they’re involved with, then that makes perfect sense. It’s still weird.

The premise of the book is that a man gives women advice on how to get and keep a man instead of women going to other women for advice about how to get and keep a man. So, I feel as though there is a better way that could have been handled in the movie. By, I don’t know, having the women befriend a man who still gives them the advice from the book or something.

What I’m saying is I found those parts of the movie really jarring because they took me out of the movie as a movie and made me think of the movie as a commercial.

(I watched this with my daughter, and she didn’t have this problem at all. She just went with it. So I’m guessing most average viewers wouldn’t care either. Maybe just people who study stories for a living.)

That said, the actual characters are a lot of fun. And there are lots of good-looking people being good looking and also making out. I found myself rooting for almost all of the characters and their relationships, so the romance part was nicely handled. It also helps that there’s a happily married man to balance out all of the wacky single people shenanigans. (And Kevin Hart’s character is bitter and going through a divorce, which adds a bit more of fun.)

Plus also, I love Meagan Goode’s haircut in the movie. And looking at Michael Ealy is always a good time. As is looking at this guy who I don’t remember from anything else, but is super cute and adorable.

All in all, I enjoyed the movie. The characters were all likeable, and I think it helps a lot that they all wanted to be happy. Also, the movie was funny, so it wasn’t a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Recommendation Wednesday: The Colors of Madeleine Trilogy

The Colors of Madeleine

Okay, it’s a bit presumptuous of me to recommend an entire trilogy when only two-thirds of the books are available to read, but I really liked A Corner of White and Cracks in the Kingdom absolutely DELIGHTED me. I was delighted! I mean, I seriously read the last third or so of the book with a smile on my face because it was making me so happy.

That almost never happens.

I loved the second book so much, and I don’t even know if I can articulate why. I think, mostly, it has to do with the fact that the book is fanciful and full of fantastical elements, but there’s this edge of sadness and melancholy to all the events. Characters are in denial or they’re a bit lost or they’re trying so hard to make things right or everything’s falling part. And at the same time there’s this wonderful relationship between Elliot and Madeleine developing that’s kind of flirtatious but not really but also kind of really but mostly just both of them finding someone they can talk to about the insane things that are happening in their lives.

Did I mention that Madeleine lives in England (aka the World) and Elliot lives in the Kingdom of Cello, and they communicate via letters through a parking meter?

I mean, of course they communicate via letters (this is Jaclyn Moriarty after all, queen of the epistolary novel), but they communicate through the parking meter because there’s an illegal crack open between the two worlds.

I know. I can’t believe I like it either.

Except I can.

(I should point out that these are not epistolary novels, though the reader does see some of the letters the two characters send back and forth.)

Some of my favorite moments are the ones with Princess Ko’s family (LOVE HER. She is super clever and smart and brave) as well as Elliot’s interactions with the princess. And everything with Madeleine and her friends, of course. (Of course.)

I cannot wait for the third book. Cannot wait.

Source: Library


I have been largely MIA this summer because…summer, you know. Anyway, I require my composition students to keep weekly blogs throughout the semester, so I figure I should do the same.

Their first assignment is to introduce themselves, but this blog is pretty established, so instead I’m going to talk about some of the things I plan to do during the next sixteen weeks. In my first post of the year, I said I wanted to vary my book reviews and try to get excited about blogging again, so I have listed a few ideas that should help me do just that.

1. Recommendation Wednesday – a few months ago (March? April?) on Twitter, Sarah from Clear Eyes, Full Shelves put on her tiara and declared Recommendation Tuesday a thing. I said it was brilliant, and I wanted to do the same, but I never did. (She, of course, has posted tons of recommendations since then.) I’m doing mine on Wednesday since I often participate in Top Ten Tuesday and don’t want to over-commit my days. #bloggerproblems

2. Movies Based On Books – I watch a lot of movies based on books. I have thoughts about them. Sometimes I have seen the books; sometimes I haven’t. Either way, they fit the whole book blogger deal.

3. Teaching Thursday – I recently combined this blog with my teaching blog and want to expand beyond my Lesson Plan Friday posts. So Teaching Thursday will be a place for me to talk about teaching stuff that’s not related to lesson planning, basically.

4. Mini reviews/reading round ups – Longform reviews are too much pressure (even if it is pressure I put on myself). (Another candidate for #bloggerproblems). Not that I will never do longer reviews, but I will definitely be doing more mini reviews.

5. Pet peeves/opinion/discussion posts – I have lots of opinions about a lot of things related to books. Probably I should start talking about them here.

Oh, and it’s possible I may post about TV sometimes. Maybe. I haven’t decided yet.

So, yes. Those are my ideas. I’m posting them to help hold myself accountable. And to show my students that it’s possible to write 300 words (with links) about something you care about–or have to do for an assignment.

Word count: 370

Lesson Plan Friday: The Power of Poetry

Lesson Plan Friday @ The EnglishistI have a confession. I was terrified to teach poetry. As part of the Writing about Literature course at my school, there are three units: fiction, drama, and poetry. I have a creative writing degree…in fiction. I have taken screenwriting/drama classes. But poetry? Of course, I’ve encountered poetry throughout all of my many, many years of schooling. But I’m not a poetry expert, you know?

So my first time out, I thought for sure it would be a disaster.

Add to that the fact that most of my students also have an aversion to poetry. They don’t understand it, they think it’s stupid, and, of course, most of their experience with poetry was how it means something besides what they think it means.

However, in terms of student engagement, student response, and student interest, the poetry unit has wound up being the best.

I think the main reason the unit works so well is that poetry isn’t a trick: it’s all about word choice and word order.

I cannot tell you how many of my students feel super smart because they can explain a poem, and it’s all based on “Well, in line 4, the author uses ‘x word’ which means ‘this,’ so the poem is about ‘y.’”

Poetry solved!

The other thing that helps is our final poetry assignment***. My students have to write their own poems and then explain their choices. And then we have a poetry slam where they read their poems aloud.

The effect of that assignment?

  • I had a student who “didn’t read” before my class and was a math/engineering guy so was only taking the class because it’s required. He wrote so many poems that he didn’t know which one to choose for his final paper. He worked in retail and would write poems on the back of receipt paper at work. Any chance he got, he was scribbling poems.
  • They come to office hours because they have too many ideas and don’t know which one to pick.
  • They figure out inventive ways to do picture poems (one in the form of a broken heart, another in the form of a dancer, yet another in the form of a quadratic equation).
  • This past semester, my students were so proud of their poems that they told me I should make future classes analyze their poems like we did to the ones in the books.

This is huge. My students tend to have notoriously low confidence in their writing. But they recognized and felt that their poetry was as worthy of being analyzed as the poetry in the textbook.

Poems aside, their explanations*** (which is what they’re really graded on) are fantastic. They know and understand the terminology; they know and understand the inspiration poems or poetic forms. Their papers are a joy to read.


So, yes. Poetry. It’s amazing.

***Here’s the assignment:

Part I: The Paper

Length: no word count (poem) / 500-750 words (explanation)

You have two options for this paper.

Option 1: Write a poem that imitates or is inspired by a poem that appears in any of the assigned reading on our syllabus. Then, explain the choices you made writing your poem, focusing on how it matches the original. Use the correct vocabulary when explaining the poems and their similarities.

You are using the original poem as inspiration, which means you can write a parody (humorous imitation) or something more serious on whatever topic you wish.

Option 2: Write a fixed form poem (sonnet, villanelle, sestina, limerick, or haiku) on the topic of your choice. Then, explain the choices you made while writing your poem, focusing on how it fits the chosen form and why you chose that particular form. Use the correct vocabulary when explaining your choices.

In order to successfully complete this paper, you must first understand the features of the poetic form and how to properly implement them. Only then will you be able to craft your poem.

Part II: The Final

Our poetry final will be an in-class poetry slam held during the assigned finals time. You will read/recite your poem to the class.

Creative Commons License
This work by Akilah @ The Englishist is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.