Costa Reading

One girl with too many books.

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The Teen Classic Novel #1

We were asked to read a couple of classic teen novels for this class. According to Oxford Dictionary Online classic is defined as “Judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind“. And so a classic novel is a novel that will stand the test of time. It’s not just a fad, it truly resonates with many people and will do so over the course of many years. A teen classic novel will do just this but is written just for teens. I chose to read Looking for Alaska by John Green for this section of reading. It’s one I’ve heard a lot about over the years but I’d never picked it up for some reason.

Looking for Alaska is about Miles. He’s a teenage boy obsessed with the last words of famous people. He reads their biographies and loves it when their last words are included. When his parents ask him why he chose to go to boarding school, thinking it was because he didn’t have many (if any) friends, and he tells them that it’s because of Francois Robelais’ last words: “I go to seek a Great Perhaps”. This is what really grabbed my attention when I was reading the book. It got me wondering, do teens really think this way? Is John Green making teens appear more deep and philosophical than they truly are? And, if so, does that matter?

Miles ends up going to this boarding school and meets the first true friends he’s ever had. His roommate, The Colonel, gives him the nickname, Pudge, and that’s what we get to know him as. Pudge becomes infatuated with this girl, Alaska. She’s moody, attractive, bold, smart, and has a boyfriend. Takumi is the funny one of the group and he also loves to rap. Much of the book is taken over by the witty and smart dialogue between this group of friends and their escapades on school grounds. They mess around a lot but they each seem to take their lives seriously. They seriously ponder the BIG questions about life and share their thoughts with each other. Adults are around but not immediately present. Pudge’s parents are supportive and trust him. They don’t hover but they’re there if Pudge ever needs them. The teachers seem to care but they’re mainly in the background. One does stand out as the protector of the students. They’ve nicknamed him The Eagle and at first he just seems like a disciplinarian but you start to realize that he truly cares about the kids who go to the school.

However, this novel does revolve around a tragedy. It is broken up into two parts, a Before and an After. Pudge starts to truly ponder what The Great Perhaps is in the After portion. He struggles with the reasons why certain choices are made and why such horrible things can happen to the people he loves. He and The Colonel must choose how to move on after such a life changing event happens.

John Green writes his teen characters as real as he can. They make stupid decisions, drink, do drugs, and have sex. But they’re also smart, funny, emotionally vulnerable, strong, and fragile. He seems to write his characters in a way to draw real teens into a story. He really wants to connect with teens and help them feel as though they are not alone in anything that they go through. Sometimes his characters can be irritating and selfish but that’s just how people (not just teens) can be sometimes.

The fact that John Green writes for teens in a way that isn’t condescending or dumbing things down for them might be the reason he has such a faithful following. His brother, Hank, and he started the nerdfighters campaign. They wanted teens to truly feel accepted in a group where they could be themselves. There is no criteria to be a nerdfighter, you just need to want to be one.

Additional Information:

To find out more about nerdfighters, watch a youtube video by Hank and Green here.

For more information from John Green’s website about Looking for Alaska click here.

For famous last words click here.

To find out how to help troubled teens click here.


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A Fractured Fairy Tales Reading Ladder

A fractured fairy tale takes a traditional fairy tale and changes the plot, setting, characters, and/or message to create a whole new kind of story. It is usually obvious which fairy tales these fractured stories are based on and it can be easy to pick out the points the author chose to change.

Lately it seems as though authors are using these usually misogynistic traditional tales and changing them to promote a different way of thinking about everyone’s role in society.

There are no longer helpless damsels in distress with a knight on a white horse coming to rescue her. And if she does need help, she doesn’t sit passively by and do nothing; she actively participates in her rescue.

On the other hand, all men are not the strong dashing type, they also need to be rescued sometimes and this isn’t emasculating in any way.

It’s important that children and teens understand that it’s okay to be strong, weak, happy, sad, angry, intelligent, and (sometimes) ignorant. Nobody is perfect and our literature needs to reflect this. Kids need to be taught that it’s okay for them to make mistakes and it’s what they do after they’ve made them that is important.

I think that these fractured fairy tales I’ve listed in my reading ladder do this very well. They are in leveling order, beginning with the upper elementary age/lower middle school and progressing to upper high school.


Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

For grades 4-6

As next door neighbors Hazel and Jack have been best friends since they were six. They’ve been there for each other through each of their family’s difficulties. However, now that they’re eleven, others have started to question their friendship, thinking it’s abnormal for a boy and a girl to be friends. Hazel and Jack stay true to their friendship, not caring what other people think. Until one day when Jack’s whole personality seems to change. He freezes Hazel out of his life and then disappears. Hazel knows in her heart that something is desperately wrong and sets out to rescue him. She travels through a frozen forest to find the Snow Queen who has bewitched Jack. Will she be able to break through the enchantment to reach Jack’s heart and bring him home?


Tale Dark and GrimmA Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

For grades 5-7

This story of Hansel and Gretel is more true to the traditional Grimm Brother’s fairy tales. However, Gidwitz has the brother and sister traveling through the tales much as a reader would read through the stories in a book. He changes the tales in ways to make the story flow but keeps the original intention and feeling. Most importantly, the original gore of the Grimm’s tales is retained. Gidwitz doesn’t sugar coat any of the more sinister bits and this is what has appealed to all of the kids I’ve recommended the book to. However, this is the main reason I would say it’s for 5th-7th graders.

As brother and sister, Hansel and Gretel must help each other navigate their way through the many evils that surround them. They take turns being the logical rescuer of the other. I love the way this book makes the sibling’s relationship so very important. This is something we don’t see too much of. A lot of books for this age group are about being the sole hero.


Far Far AwayFar Far Away by Tom McNeal

For grades 6-8

Jeremy Johnson Johnson has been friends with the ghost of Jacob Grimm for the last few years. The ghost is a voice of reason for Jeremy until he becomes friends with Ginger, a spunky girl who challenges him to break out of his shell. Then they become involved in a series of dangerous events and their lives are put in danger.
This book felt very much like a fairy tale but I couldn’t pinpoint any one specific tale.
Far Far Away is definitely a coming of age tale for boys. Jeremy is trying to figure out how to save his house because his father is frozen into inaction by depression. He is also discovering who he is and how he can become the person he wants to be. Jacob is that external voice that would usually be the protagonist’s inner voice.
sisters redSisters Red by Jackson Pearce

For grades 8-10

Scarlett and Rosie march are the contemporary Little Red Riding Hoods. Their grandmother had been killed in their house by a Fenris, a werewolf like creature who attack young girls. The sisters aren’t helpless little girls anymore. Rather they take the fight to the Fenris by acting like victims and then killing as many Fenris as they possibly can. They don’t do this alone however, they are joined by a long family friend who also happens to be a huntsman. Things can’t stay the same however, they start to change as Rosie and Silas begin to have feelings for each other.
The question of the strength of a sister’s bonds are questioned and whether or not they’ll be able to survive the next challenges the three are going to face.

by Marissa Meyer
For grades 9-11
Cinder is a cyborg Cinderella who lives New Beijing. She is treated as a servant by her stepmother, Adri, and one of her stepsisters, Pearl, but she absolutely adores her stepsister, Peony. Cinder works as a mechanic to repair androids and this is how she meets Prince Kai. Of course she develops feelings for him (this is a Cinderella story after all) but she doesn’t become the damsel in distress. She fights for her freedoms and to improve her lot in life. She even makes it her mission to save Prince Kai for the evil Lunar Queen Levana.
This is definitely not the traditional Cinderella story and has many different levels of complexity. It takes on stereotypical gender roles while tweaking the traditional fairy tale. And as the series moves on to Scarlet, Cress, and Winter readers are introduced to many more versions of fractured fairy tales.

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The Problem Novel

Teen suicide is something that should not be happening as much as it does. There are so many teens that haven’t even started their lives yet they’re in so much pain that they’re willing to cut them short. Some of these teens suffer from severe mental issues such as depression yet many are simply pushed beyond the limits of what they can deal with. Whether they’re being bullied or the victim of some other sort of abuse, these teens aren’t able to stand anymore of it.

What Thirteen Reasons Why teaches teens is that they just might have the power to save the life of someone. It might be somebody they’re close to or it might be a complete stranger. We don’t know the power of a few kind words or a smile might have on somebody. Books like TRW are here to bring this message to as many people as possible.

TRW is told from two different points of view. One of these is the pov of Clay, a nice guy who receives an innocuous looking package in the mail. The other pov is of Hannah, the girl who sent the package. The package is full of tapes that Hannah made that are being sent to very specific people. The tapes are full of the story of why Hannah killed herself. As Clay listens he learns that Hannah has sent the tapes to the people responsible for her suicide. However, he can’t figure out what role he played in her death. In fact, he had always had a crush on her. Yet, as he gets deeper and deeper into Hannah’s story, he realizes the many different times he and others might have been able to save Hannah just by being kind or being her friend.

Many times I found Hannah to be too angsty, too ready to find fault in others, and not very likeable. The reader never gets a chance to really know Hannah beyond her reasons for committing suicide. This was hard for me but then my professor pointed out that author Jay Asher might have kept her such a blank to show that she could be anyone you know. We don’t get to see anything beyond the way people treat Hannah and how she reacts. That could be how this book shows teens that anyone could be Hannah, anyone could need a kind word or smile. It’s a book that teens can learn empathy from. It just might open their eyes to how others might be screaming silently for help. And it just might give them the strength to offer a helping hand.

Additional Information:

To hear Hannah’s tapes click here.

To submit your own review of Thirteen Reasons Why and visit the book’s website click here.

To find help for someone you feel might need it click here.

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The Living by Matt de la Pena

The Living by Matt de la Pena tackles many issues that teens deal with on a day-to-day basis. His characters are usually working class and are of mixed race. They deal with racism and unfair societal disadvantages that they must rise above. The books are contemporary and are for the multicultural teens that don’t see many books that are written for them specifically.

Matt de la Pena tackles these same issues in a completely new way. The main character in The Living is Shy. He’s working on a cruise ship for the summer to make some money. His family is struggling to make ends meet in Otay Mesa, a small neighborhood outside of San Diego. His grandmother recently died of a new disease that proves fatal and is sweeping through the poorer parts of California. Shy connects with another employee, Carmen, on the ship because of his grandmother’s death. He feels she’s the only one he can truly connect with because her father died of the same disease. Shy has feelings for her but she’s engaged to another guy. He also has some people investigating and interrogating because he was a witness to some rich guy’s suicide. The company the man worked for is very interested in what this man’s last words were to Shy. Shy can’t even imagine why. But these problems all seem so small and unimportant when the cruise ship receives word that most of California has been devastated by a disastrous earthquake. People are in shock that many of their loved ones are most likely dead. Then a tsunami bigger than any in recorded history sinks the ship. After a heart pumping series of events, Shy finds himself on a lifeboat with a teenage girl named Addie.

Shy has met Addie before and they did not get along. She’s a rich girl who was on a cruise with her rich father and girl friend. Now she’s no better off than Shy. Due to their circumstances the previous class lines are gone and now they both just need to survive. They are trying to get to the Hidden Island that her father works on as it is the nearest haven they can think of and they get to know each other in the process.

I really liked how Matt was able to combine so many different genres into one book. He has an adventure, contemporary fiction, disaster, romance, and coming of age. I like that it was so easy to get inside Shy’s head even though it was written in the third person. There were plenty of times when I was surprised to hear “Shy” instead of “I” or “me”. The narration flowed so well that I completely forgot that it wasn’t Shy who was actually talking. This is definitely a novel that will entertain all readers while connecting with the multicultural teens in a special way.

On a side note, there was one thing that did irritate me with The Living. It has a love triangle like so many teen novels today. I wonder if this is because Matt isn’t used to writing romance into his fiction and he’s just taking a cue from many of the popular teen novels of today, Hunger Games just for an example, or if this will come into play later in the series and couldn’t be avoided. Either way, I did roll my eyes a little when I realized Shy was going to be torn between Carmen and Addie. However, I really liked how Matt could portray a teenage male protagonist so realistically. Shy has the normal hormonal lusty feelings of a teenage boy but he also shows the depth of emotions and intelligence that most boys also have. He doesn’t always act like a sex crazed boy that we’re used to seeing. Shy has these feelings but he doesn’t always act on them. Matt de la Pena did a great job in not writing a stereotypical teenage boy.

Additional Information:

Follow what he’s doing on Matt de la Pena’s website.

Read/listen to an interview with Matt de la Pena on NPR’s website.

For a list of multicultural books written for kids and teens compiled by experts in the field click here.


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The Verse Novel

Authors use poetry when prose isn’t adequate to convey emotional and heavy topics. Poetry can pack such an emotional punch into so few words that a reader is left breathless. The verse novel can be a perfect way to attract teens to literature for this very reason. Not only are verse novels usually quick and easy to read, they appeal to those who are thinking lyrically and symbolically. Teens are usually going through emotional and trying times and poetry tends to call to them. The verse novel can be read quickly and be taken at face value, or a reader can really delve into the meaning behind the imagery the poet decided to use. In reality, the verse novel can be much more detailed and challenging to read than a novel in prose. It can also be much more touching and beautiful. Teachers, parents, and librarians should be encouraging teens to close read these verse novels to truly connect with the story that is being told.

I chose to read Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate for the verse novel section of this class. I was surprised that I had already read all of the other choices: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, Crank by Ellen Hopkins, and Sold by Patricia McCormick. The reason for my surprise is that I don’t view myself as a fan of poetry. However, I had picked all of these up at some point, either because I read a starred review (Inside Out and Back Again), saw it being checked out by a lot of teens (Crank), or liked the cover (Sold). And I loved all of them, even though I’m not a poetry enthusiast. I found they were beautifully written and appealed to my emotional state. Home of the Brave proved to be the same for me.

Home of the Brave is the story of Kek, a young refugee from Sudan. He has been brought to Minnesota to live with his aunt and cousin, Ganwar, who are also refugees. His brother and father had been killed in Sudan and he had been separated from his mother. Kek remains hopeful that his mother will join them in Minnesota but none of the other people in his life think he is being realistic. The story revolves around Kek and his experiences in America as well as his memories of his family in Sudan. His cousin, Ganwar, has had a difficult time adjusting to the American life but Kek seems to do better with his positive demeanor. His aunt says that “Kek finds sun when the sky is dark.” Kek ends up getting a job to share with Ganwar, helping a solitary woman taking care of a cow on a small farm. They find that this is one place that seems remotely similar to their lives as cattle herders in Sudan. The lonely cow, Gol, brings each of the boys comfort in their uncertain lives.

The beautiful simplicity of Kek’s story in verse evokes emotions a reader might not feel if reading it in prose. Here’s the beginning a poem called “Father” that exemplifies the benefits of writing in verse:

He had many cattle,

my father,

and the respect of our village,

but it was his voice that made him a rich man among men.

His voice was deep,

like a storm coming,

but gentle,

like the rain ending.

This verse creates an image of a responsible, respectable man who had a deep love of his family. The fact that this is spoken by his son demonstrates that his family loved and respected him in turn. Yet the imagery of a storm coming and rain ending brings a sense of doom even though it is being used to describe a loved father’s singing voice.

This story could have been about any struggling refugee child who is trying to make a home in a new country. I think that’s part of its appeal. Any teen that is struggling to find their place in the world will be able to connect with Kek. They will see how he had to search for something that would bring him comfort and they will respond to the lyrical way he does this. This is truly a novel that many teens will be able to relate to.

Additional Information:

Learn more about Home of the Brave here.

Find out about Sudanese refugees who have a happy ending here.

Find out more about verse novels here.

Find out about the reasons verse novels work well for kids and teens here.


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The Graphic Novel

The class session today was all about graphic novels. Normally we break up into groups who read the same book and we discuss the works. By the end of the hour I leave class with a whole new perspective on the books. I get to hear how the books affected people who bring their own backgrounds and life experiences to the class. However, we all have something vital in common: we are no longer teenagers! We come to class every week with the solid knowledge that life continues after high school. We remember with uncomfortable nostalgia the feelings of inadequacy, rejection, depression, etc. But we know there is no way any of us can truly understand what teens are going through today. Today’s class was different.

A local high school English teacher brought a class of about 30 teens to the campus. They were there to see what it was like on a college campus, to participate in a college level class, and to teach us a few things. We all had the choice of reading My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, or Smile by Raina Telgemeier. These titles really only have a few things in common; they are graphic novels, they are written for teens, and they deal with acceptance and rejection. Although they are written for a teen audience, they vary greatly in appropriateness. I knew the teens showing up ranged from freshman to seniors but had no idea which book the majority would choose to read. So I read all three to prepare for the class and I decided I would join whichever group needed another college student. And I’m really glad I did read all three. Like I said, they were done so differently that I feel like the novels themselves taught me much about the genre as a whole. This helped me during our discussion of Smile.

I was in a group of five teens and one of my college classmates, Brian. The teens consisted of 4 girls and 1 boy, ranging in grades from 9-12. They were all a bit hesitant at first, unsure of how to react to being in a discussion with a couple of adults they’d never met before. I could imagine Raina from Smile in a situation just like this. The book is all about Raina’s journey of self discovery through awkward and embarrassing situations with her family and friends. As we asked the teens questions, I could see the same looks on their faces that I saw on Raina’s in the different illustrations. I could also see, as we continued talking and the teens started to feel more comfortable with us, them shifting to a more confident manner. They started to look us in the eye and tell us how they felt about the book with confidence. It was amazing to see them realize that their opinions mattered to us and that we weren’t going to take the conversation away from them. However, what they were saying was troubling at times.

We discussed how people alienate others because of the way they look and what their interests are.  It seemed as though they felt that it was inevitable for people to treat other people badly to make themselves feel better. There were a couple of girls in particular who felt that nothing could be done about this, including in their groups of friends, and that they just needed to get through high school to move beyond this stage in their lives. Brian and I tried guide them to an understanding that books like Smile are out there so kids might actually try to change some of the cruelty that might happen in the midst of their peers. They didn’t quite grasp onto that concept right then but I feel like they might think about it the next time they see someone being rejected. They just might think aboutRaina in Smile and reach out to that person.

This class session really brought home to me that these books are being written for these teens. They are discovering who they are and what kind of person they want to be. Teen literature today is here to show them that they’re not alone in their experiences as well as to give them examples of different types of people that they can be. They can either choose to be the “friend” who pulls down someone’s skirt in front of the whole school or the friend who is supportive when someone gets their braces off after 4 years.


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My Book Life

Books have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother reading out loud to my sister, brother, and me. I don’t remember learning how to read myself but for as long as I can remember I wasn’t without a book wherever I went. It was the same with my mother. She not only told us kids how important it was to be a good reader, she showed us by her example. She made it so that books were always available to us. We had more books in the house than we had shelves for them and we were constantly adding to the collection. Whenever we went to yard sales, which was a lot, the first place I would go would be to the table stacked with books. We also made regular trips to the public library and left with more books than we could possibly read.

As a teen I used books as a safe way to experiment with who and what I wanted to be. I read about tragedy and heroism, about love and loss, about fantastical creatures and scientific impossibilities. From the safety of my own room, I traveled to many different places and met many different people. Consciously, I read for fun and unconsciously, to learn more about myself.

As an adult, I’ve been able to embrace teen literature in ways I never did when I was a teen. I can truly disappear into a teen novel, be inspired by those young protagonists, and remember what it was like to feel so lost or alone in my troubles. I feel that’s what teen literature should be for teens now. Books should help them to find themselves, help them decide what kind of person they want to be, now and in the future.

This is why I love my job so much. As a librarian, I have a small amount of power to nurture life long readers in the children and teens I come into contact with in the library.