Costa Reading

One girl with too many books.

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Colorado Teen Literature Conference

One of our assignments for this Young Adult Lit class could be to volunteer at the Colorado Teen Literature Conference at the Tivoli on the Auraria campus. I jumped at the opportunity to attend this one day conference again. I love any chance to learn more about the field of YAL and talk to fellow book lovers. It’s also so wonderful to see all of the teens that are willing to give up their Saturday to meet with teachers, librarians, and authors. Seeing all of their fresh faces in the crowds made me happy to know that there is a whole new generation of readers out there.

One of the keynote speakers at the conference this year was A.S. King. She is the author of Ask the Passengers, Reality Boy, Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, Everybody Sees the Ants, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, and The Dust of 100 Dogs. King started the conference with an inspiring speech meant for people of all ages even though it was directed toward the teens in the room. She really emphasized that we all make decisions that either help us achieve our dreams or sabotage our dreams. She told the audience that we all have baggage that we lug around with us. It might be past experiences or people in our past. Her point was that we have control over what we allow in this baggage. We can take out whatever we feel we don’t need anymore. I liked her speech because she was trying to empower the audience to take control over our lives to do what will make us happy. I think this is a message that everyone needs to hear at some point in his or her life.

You can read more about A. S. King and her books here.

The first session I went to was “Gender Studies in Young Adult Literature” presented by Bree Ervin. I’d read most of the books the speaker was talking about but I really liked the points she was making about why these books were key in teaching teen boys and girls about gender roles. She talked about a lot of books like Openly Straight, The Knife of Never Letting Go, Dust Land, Cinder, Book Thief, Legend, Luna, and Ask the Passengers. Her main points were that our society is too ready to put labels on people so they can decide how to react to them. These titles rip off those labels and break down the barriers and let people just be who they’re meant to be. Girls can be strong but they can also be weak. Boys can be rescued but they can also do the rescuing.

The next session I went to was called “Stranger than Fiction: Young Adult Nonfiction”. I decided to attend this session because nonfiction is not one of my strong areas for readers advisory. I never pick up a nonfiction book to read for pleasure but I have plans to change this. The presenter, Angie Manfredi’s session gave me a good reading list to start with and my goal is to read at least 5 of them over the summer. Her list included:

Parrots Over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth

The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery by Steve Sheinkin

Call of the Klondike by David Meissner

Hidden Like Anne Frank: 14 True Stories of Survival by Marcel Prins and Peter Henk Steenhuis

Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different by Karen Blumenthal

A Volcano Beneath the Snow: John Brown’s War Against Slavery by Albert Marrin

Titanic Voices From the Disaster by Deborah Hopkinson

Pure Grit: How WWII Nurses in the Pacific Survived Combat and Prison Camp by Mary Cronk Farrell

Theater Geek. By Mickey Rapkin
Boys in the Boat. By Daniel James Brown.
Brilliant Blunders. By Mario Luvio.
The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens by Brooke Hauser
My Foreign Cities by Elizabeth Scarboro

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

You can check out Angie’s blog here.

I stayed for the rest of the conference but the above three were the highlights for me. I came away with a better idea of why gender roles are so important to understand in YAL and I have a long list of nonfiction to hook teens. King’s speech also inspired me to overcome all of those obstacles to achieve my dreams and to help the teens I see every day achieve theirs.


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I’ve never been drawn to nonfiction. I would much rather be entertained by a good story than sit and read a bunch of facts. That’s how I’ve always viewed nonfiction, as boring as reading a textbook. I have always understood the need for nonfiction and realize that it has a well-deserved role in every classroom and library but I would never pick up a nonfiction book to read for pleasure. However, How They Croaked was a nonfiction book I couldn’t put down. It might be full of scientific and historical facts but it’s also humorous and entertaining.

Georgia Bragg has put together a tome of the grisly ends of some of the most famous people throughout history. Each chapter is on the life and death of a historical figure. The narration brings the facts to humorous life and the illustrations make it less intimidating to those who are nonfiction novices. The chapters all end with tips like “Steps for a Successful Leeching”, “Bloodletting Do’s and Don’ts”, and “Crossword Puzzle Words for ‘Dead’”. Readers will also learn things that might come in handy today. For example, after the chapter on Mozart there is the alphabet in sign language.

Bragg chose well in the people she decided to write about. Most of them died from things we never would even think of today because we live in a world of vaccines, hospitals, and Geiger counters. Teens reading this book will definitely get a history lesson while laughing out loud. They might know some of the facts already but they will most definitely learn something new. I learned that Cleopatra did not die of snakebite, that Einstein’s brain was stolen, and that Galileo wouldn’t drink water so drank a lot of lead laced wine.

This is one nonfiction book I will be able to recommend to many teen readers. It will be a book I use to entice kids with shorter attention spans and a taste for the macabre.

Additional Information:

Watch book trailers and learn more about Georgia Bragg here.To read an interview with the author and read an excerpt click here.

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Historical Fiction

I absolutely love reading historical fiction. I love it when an author can take me back in time, to a place I will never be able to visit outside of a book. I especially love it when the author teaches me something while telling me a story. I enjoy books from every time period and I’ve read many good books about World War II. I feel as though this was a deeply depressing time period for many people from all over the world but there is much that can be learned from it. Authors are able to retell the stories of times past through historical fiction. They are able to draw readers into a horrendous moment in history by giving them a character to empathize with.

Ruta Supetys does this in Between Shades of Gray. She puts the reader into the world of fifteen-year-old Lina, the daughter of a provost at a Lithuanian university. The Soviet police have taken her and her family away in the night for no reason that they could tell. Lina, her brother, Jonas, and her mother have been separated from Lina’s father. They are put on a train for weeks and finally end up in Siberia. They are put through much heartache, sickness, and pain. However, there are a few rays of light that shine through. Lina develops a friendship with Andrius, a boy about her age who has also lost his father. There is a Soviet guard who shows kindness when he can. And Lina finds joy in her drawing.

Lina’s story brings to light a part of World War II that is not commonly seen in teen literature. Most fiction set during this time take place in the concentration camps that Hitler created. While it is important to learn about these camps and what people lived through there, it is just as important to know what went on in the rest of the world during this time. It’s important for our future to realize that the horrible dictators of the past weren’t just preoccupied with their victims’ nationalities, they were also afraid of their intellects. Supetys states in her Author’s Note, “Doctors, lawyers, teachers, military servicemen, writers, business owners, musicians, artists, and even librarians were all considered anti-Soviet and were added to the growing list slated for wholesale genocide.” Stalin needed to wipe out any individual who might speak out against him. He killed millions of people but there isn’t near the same amount of awareness of his atrocities as there is about Hitler.

It’s important to have books like Between Shades of Gray to bring history to life for the teens of today. They need to be aware of the sordid past in order to help make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Teens also learn about kindness, empathy, and love through books like this. They get to see that no matter how bleak life might seem, there is always hope.

Additional Information:

To find out more about the book and to see an interview with the author click here.

Learn more about Stalin’s occupation of the Baltic States by clicking here.

Learn about the Soviet deportations from Lithuania by clicking here.

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The Giver

What would it be like to live in a world with no crime, no racism, no discontent? How would it feel to get along with everyone and have everyone get along with you? What if there were no poverty, sickness, or uncertainty? Would all of this be worth it if no one felt desire, love, or joy? What if the cost of peace was absolute numbness?

That is the kind of world that Jonas lives in. The Giver is set in a community that wants to control everything. And when I say everything I mean everything. Jonas is about to turn 12 and knows that things are going to change because he is going to find out what his occupation will be for the rest of his life. He understands that changes happen for the good of the community but these changes are expected and normal. However Jonas is starting to notice something new, something intriguing and confusing, but he has no words to describe what is happening.

Then the Ceremony day finally arrives when Jonas receives his assignment and he forgets all about the odd things he’s been noticing when he’s announced to be the Receiver of Memories. This is an occupation Jonas isn’t familiar with but he accepts the assignment as is expected of him. Little does he know that this is the moment that will change the course of his life.

It’s only logical that a receiver would need someone to give to them. This is where the Giver comes in. He is an elderly man who has been carrying around the memories of the distant past in order to retain the Sameness of the community they live in. He now starts to give Jonas these memories and Jonas starts to realize that the confusing and intriguing thing he’s been noticing is color. It is also through these memories that he realizes he’s never experienced true joy, sorrow, pain, and love before. He also understands that his family and friends have never felt these things either. In fact, he realizes that they will never experience true emotion while the memories of the past are kept from them. During one particularly disturbing scene Jonas understands that they are capable of murder with no remorse. Jonas and the Giver decide they must put an end to the dangerous Sameness of the community. They are willing to sacrifice themselves to make this so.

The Giver is an excellent book that has fostered many discussions on right and wrong. It raises the question of what price should we pay for peace? Should we sacrifice all emotion and beauty for the sake of never being hurt? And can we truly feel joy and pleasure if we never feel sorrow and pain? If it would mean the end to all crime and war, would we give up our individual rights to make our own decisions?

Even though this book is relatively short and easy to read, this book’s heavy topics lend itself to deep philosophical discussions. I think that is why it is an award winner and still assigned reading at school. However, I do think it belongs in the upper middle to lower high school classrooms, not in the elementary classrooms like I usually see.

Additional Information:

To watch a book trailer for The Giver click here.

Watch an interview with Lois Lowry about The Giver here.

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Teens are constantly struggling with finding their unique identity. Most of them don’t quite know yet who they are and who they want to be. Every day brings up new questions as to how they will respond to situations. Adults must also make these decisions but it does get easier as time goes on. It gets easier not to succumb to peer pressure or take the easy way out, even if that means hurting somebody. That doesn’t mean that adults don’t ever make decisions that hurt others just that it happens less often, if they’ve chosen to be the type of person that would rather be kind. This is the type of situation that Wonder comes from. The author, R. J. Palaccio, told an NPR interviewer that the idea of the book comes from a situation where she didn’t act with the kindness she wishes she had.

Wonder is about a boy who is born with a severe facial deformity that has prevented him from attending public school. August has always known that he’s different from other kids but he still feels like a normal kid. He plays video games, loves Star Wars, his dog, his family, and hanging out with his friends. He feels normal but is terrified at the thought of attending public school. But, with encouragement from his parents, he attends school for the first time in fifth grade. This has to be one of the hardest times in a child’s life without having a very prominent physical difference and I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have the appearance of August.

The strength that is shown by August and by those who choose to be kind and to be his friend is what makes me love this book so much. I completely understand why this book is on so many teachers’ reading lists. This book shows kids what it means to be a good person, what it means to choose to rise above appearances and to be kind because it is the absolutely right thing to do. There was one particular teacher who tried to teach this to the fifth graders in August’s English class, Mr. Browne. Mr. Browne had a precept for every month of the year that the students discussed and wrote essays on. His very first precept was: “When given the choice between right or being kind, choose kind” (page 48). This precept definitely spoke to me on a personal level as I’m sure it did many other readers. I know that it spoke to the characters in the book because of the precepts they write themselves at the end of the book.

Another reason Wonder will appeal to many different readers is because it isn’t just told from the point of view of August. The reader is put in the place of his friends, Summer and Jack, his sister, Via, and his sister’s boyfriend, Justin, and his sister’s estranged friend. Miranda. We’re introduced to imperfect people who feel uncertainty, jealousy, and a bit of resentment but they are all good people. The characters are so real that you feel what they’re feeling and you hope that you would be able to rise to the occasion of being kind. However, not everyone is good. The world is full of people who will be cruel and that’s just reality. August, along with his friends, goes through some tough situations but it’s how he reacts that makes the true impression on the reader.

Additional Information:

Send your own precepts to the author here.

Hear the author’s story of Wonder here.

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The Teen Classic Novel #2

The second classic teen novel I read this semester was Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli. This was yet another teen book I kept hearing about and seeing but didn’t pick it up until it showed up on this Young Adult Lit class book list. I can see why it might be considered a teen classic; it has characters that almost anyone can relate to, a message that many need to hear, and is pretty timeless.

Stargirl is not told from a girl’s point of view. Rather the main protagonist is Leo, a high school boy who is intrigued by the new girl, Stargirl Caraway. At first, the whole school shys away from this odd addition to their high school lives. She wears strange clothes, smiles at everyone, and sings “Happy Birthday” to students in the cafeteria while playing her ukulele. Somewhere along the way she wins everyone over. People start keeping pet rats like hers, Cinnamon, and they start to dress uniquely as well. The students start to discover their individuality. As Leo says, “Girls like her. Boys liked her. And-most remarkable-the attention came from all kinds of kids: shy mice and princesses, jocks and eggheads” (page 38). He compares what occurred as “a rebellion for rather than against. For ourselves” (page 40).

Leo has already fallen for Stargirl and they begin to date. Then things start to change. Through a series of events, Stargirl is no longer beloved by the whole school. But she doesn’t see the changes like Leo does. She was never caught up in the idea of being popular; rather she was just happy that everyone was happy. Then, when people start to treat her differently, she doesn’t seem to even notice. But Leo does. He starts to get irritated with the quirky things that Stargirl does. He finally entreats her to be “normal”. No one’s lives are the same once Stargirl decides to turn her back on how she is for the sake of being “normal”.

Spinelli is definitely trying to impart the message that everyone deserves to be treated kindly with this book. He’s showing that there is a place in the world for all sorts of different people and we should all strive just to be kind and happy. Many have latched onto this message and are actively living it by creating their own Stargirl Societies. They are striving to rid schools of bullying and to teach acceptance. This is very admirable and is something that needs to happen today.

However, there were a few things that bothered me with this book. I never felt a connection to Stargirl, but I did feel a connection to Leo. I could understand his feelings of being torn between love for Stargirl and the need to be accepted by his peers. But Stargirl never felt real to me. She felt like an extremely naïve and silly girl. She had absolutely no preservation instincts and was a person who could be completely taken advantage of in the real world. There were moments when I felt her kindness to be a weird type of stalking. I really spent the whole time wanting to shake her to wake her up to what the real world is like. Don’t get me wrong, I think everyone should be able to be unique and happy without being bullied or picked on. However, I know that we all need to be wary and realize that there are bad people out there will take advantage of those unsuspecting.

In conclusion, I feel that Stargirl has a place in the classroom and on the reading lists for middle and high school students. It will be the center of much discussion on acceptance and awareness. It will help teach young people empathy, which is much needed in our society.

Additional Information:

To find out more about Stargirl Societies click here.

To learn how to become a stargirl click here.

To learn more about Jerry Spinelli click here.

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Book Talking

I book talk every day at work. I’m constantly trying to connect readers with books they will enjoy and that they need. These book talks generally happen spur of the moment and in a conversation. In other words, I’m flying by the seat of my pants and I’m told that I’m good at it, by my coworkers, my bosses, and the people I recommend books to. So when I saw that one of our assignments was to do a book talk I thought it would be a breeze, a for sure A+. But let me tell you, there’s a big difference book talking in a setting you’re familiar and book talking to a classroom of your peers! Especially when the book you choose is convoluted and hard to describe.

I chose to book talk Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgewick because it won the Michael Printz award for 2013. The premise sounded good too. It’s a story of two people who, through their many lives, connect with each other on Blessed Island. Throughout thousands of years Eric and Merle meet and each time they mean something different to each other. The story of their lives is a carefully woven, intricate tale that could not possibly be summed up in a three minute book talk. This is one book that you say a couple of sentences about and then a person just has to read the book for themselves. It’s a wonderful book that I could hand to teens interested in many different genres but I’m still hard pressed to describe it.