Costa Reading

One girl with too many books.

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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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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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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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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 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.