Thursday, December 31, 2015

Reading Log for 2016

I've seen some great spreadsheets in the past few days that people have put together for tracking their reading.  I decided that I wanted one tailored to me (of course), and that I want the option of filling out a form that will populate to a spreadsheet.  I'm not sure which will be more efficient.  I like checkboxes, but I also like seeing it all at once.  The great thing about Google Forms is that you can create a form, then just use the spreadsheet, if that turns out to be better.

Here's a copy of what my spreadsheet will look like:

I've made a template version you are welcome to take and tweak.  Copy it first.  I have saved my personal version separately, so if you make a mistake or if the template is messed up, you'll need to let me know--I won't notice from my end.  Just click here to open it, then make a copy for yourself.

I can't wait to read something and enter it on my list!

2015 Analysis

I logged 200 books on Goodreads.

I started using GR in 2008, and last year was the first year I passed 100 books.  In 2012, when we adopted two kids, I only read 50 books all year.  A large part of this increase is because I'm focusing so much on reading YA books so I can recommend them in my classes.  Some graphic novels take only 20-30 minutes to read, and some of the fluffier novels don't take much longer.  I also recorded 14 picture books this year, either because they were just that good, or because I'd marked them as to-read, so I would remember to get them at the library, then changed the status once we were done.

Still, it's a lot of reading.  56,099 pages, according to Goodreads.

23 got 2 stars.  About 75 got 3.  So half of my books were 4 or 5 stars, which is great.  I don't force myself to read stuff I don't enjoy.  Even three star books are usually fine by me.

My five star books were:
Picture books: Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake, Christmas Wombat, A Christmas Memory
Professional book: The Reading Zone
YA: The Scorpio Races, Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Made You Up, Challenger Deep

According to Goodreads' deeply satisfying (but still incomplete) statistics, my average book length was 282 pages, and my average score was 3.4  Game of Thrones was my longest book read, Gone Girl was the most commonly read of my books, and Winter is the book I read that has the highest Goodreads average.  And I'm not currently up to the painstaking work of sorting my genre, but a quick count tells me that 30 of the books I read were not written for young adults or children.

My general aim for 2016 is probably fewer books, but a higher percentage of nonfiction, classics, and adult novels.

How was your reading year?  What statistics do you like to track?

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 Challenges: In Which I Discover That Challenges Are Challenging

When I started blogging in June, I found a number of super exciting sounding challenges.  I busily signed up and tried tracking what I'd read so far, but it turns out, I was approaching it backwards.  Instead of reading books that met the challenges, I was reading what I wanted, then trying to wedge the titles into the categories I was still missing.  I backed off after a few months, but decided to share my results all the same.

I am participating in attempted the 2015 Reading Challenge organized by The Modern Mrs. Darcy.  Titles in bold are the ones I completed.

A book you've been meaning to read: Yes Please by Amy Poelher.  I was on the library's wait list for months, but finally received it.  It was...okay.

A book published this year:  Me Being Me Is Exactly As Insane As You Being You by Todd Hasak-Lowy  The local used paperbacks shop offers ARCs with a request that you donate a dollar to the local library (since they can't sell them).  I was fortunate enough to pick up this and All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.  Which reminds me...I should visit that shop again soon!

A book in a genre you don't usually read:  Dog Songs by Mary Oliver  I don't read much poetry, but Oliver is very accessible.

A book from your childhood:  Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum--graphic novel adaptation by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young  This was my favorite of the Oz books as a kid, and the graphic novel adaptation was fun and true to the book.

A book your mom loves:  As I Walked Out one Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee or The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron

A book originally written in a different language: The Dinner by Herman Koch (Dutch) And wasn't that creepy.  It reminded me of Mystic River in that the parents are totally okay with ignoring all moral laws for their kids.

A book "everyone" has read but you:  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn  I never buy books for myself (just as gifts and for my classroom), but this was at that same paperback store for a screaming deal, and I had heard so many people mention the title that I picked it up without even knowing what it was about.  I probably enjoyed it more for having no idea what I was in for!

A book chosen because of the cover:  Shadows and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

A book by a favorite author:  The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill  Hill writes on of my all-time favorite mystery series.  He also elicits the question "Is it better to start at the beginning of a series, even though the author is not all that great yet, or to pick up the story mid-stream, when the author is fully developed?"  This book avoids the question by being a later stand-alone novel.

A book recommended by someone with great taste:  Wonder by R.J. Palacio  My teaching partner raved about it.  When I bought it, many of my students greeted it with cries of joy and recognition.  So after I got it back from the first student who borrowed it, I took it home and read it for myself.

A book you should have read in high school:  Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, or Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte.

A book that's currently on the best seller list:  The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, or In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume.

In short, I completed 9/12 of these books.  I struggled with this, because it became a matter of deciding which books I'd read might fit under what category, as opposed to picking the book to meet the category requirements.  

I'm joining the 2015 Book Blog Discussion Challenge at the Discussion Dabbler Level.  I will try to incorporate 1-12 Discussion posts this year. They are tagged "Discussion," oddly enough.

I also struggled with this one.  I don't have very many readers, so I didn't get very many discussion buddies, so it was hard to stay motivated.  But I did enjoy reading others' discussion posts!  And I won one of the giveaways, so that was pretty exciting!

I have joined The Midnight Garden's 2015 Classic Young Adult & Middle Grade Challenge.  I've posted four reviews of such classics, and aim to finish four more by the end of the year.  Find them here!

Um, yeah, no.  Once summer ended, I didn't read or re-read any more classic YA or MG novels, because I was busy reading current ones to recommend to my students.  Are the classics still worth reading for today's tweens and teens?  Yes, but they are a hard sell for kids who don't already consider themselves readers.

Goodreads Goal:  Having read 134 books in 2014, I'm attempting to read 200 books in 2015.  I made it on Dec. 30, by grabbing a graphic novel that's been on my shelf for months.  

I'm pretty sure I'll get this one done.   200 was a big jump for me, and I certainly wouldn't have made it if I weren't so focused on YA novels.  Some of these were notable picture books, graphic novels, and other super short books, but I decided that if it made enough of an impact that I wanted to rate and remember it, it counts.  I may scale back my goal for next year though--175?  

At first I thought I wouldn't do any challenges in 2016, seeing how I struggled with them.  (I didn't even mark on here the Bingo card I attempted.)  But then I got interested in the 12 Month Classic Challenge, and then I saw the challenge to read all the Youth Media Award YA books, and those both really appealed to me.  So I think I'll try those in 2016.  They are more focused than the ones that I flailed away at this year.  

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

December Wrap-up

You'd think I'd be over being surprised that yet another year has gone by.


I've been blogging since late June, so this is my first year-end post.  I've also been super busy this month, what with work and the holidays and getting sick.  You know, like everyone else.

But here's what's happened:

My Reading

Um.  Eight.  Plus lots of picture books.


I finished Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, Tiger Rising, and Found with my classes.  I have such a soft spot for Joey, and found his story all the more poignant now that I have my own Joey at home.  Tiger Rising was maybe a little too subtle for a read-aloud, but it is still a great book.  Found is the least literary of the bunch, but BOY did the kids love it.  Wow.  Their excitement made it all worthwhile.  

We ran out of steam with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and I'm going to have them choose a different book after break.  We also read The Day the Crayons Quit and The Day the Crayons Came Home during the last few days before break, which were both fun.  After reading the first book, students wrote delightful letters of complaint to themselves from their posessions, and since I was coming down with strep by the end of the week, I had student volunteers take turns reading the second book aloud, which was a good change of pace for all of us.

At home we were doing our "book Advent," so instead of keeping up with Percy Jackson, we were reading our favorite holiday and winter books each night.  This year's best discovery was Christmas Wombat, by Jackie French.  My kids' perennial favorite is Jan Brett's The Mitten.  

Mildly Disappointing

I won a copy of The Secret Chord a couple of months ago, and finally got myself to read it.  I loved The Year of Miracles, and was fascinated by March, but this time Geraldine Brooks just didn't do it for me.  

Streak of Solid 4 Stars!

Once I made my list of prioritized books to read, I started out with the ones I'd been looking forward to the most.  I didn't give any of them five stars, because they didn't quite move me as much as other books have, but they were definitely all really good books.  The Hired Girl was so very sweet.  I think she and Anne Shirley would have gotten along like a house on fire.  A good old-fashioned read without being treacly or arch.  The Rest of Us Just Live Here was at its best when describing "ordinary" types of mental illness, and sibling love.  Patrick Ness is seriously one of my heros.  I mean, did you see this?  

Tonight the Streets Are Ours is not my favorite Leila Sales, but it's still damn good, and raised interesting questions about what it means to love someone and about how we portray ourselves in writing.  And I finally read Winter.  Ah, Winter.  I wish I'd been able to read it when I plowed through the first three; I think the long break made the ending less glorious than it would have been otherwise.  But I adore Marissa Meyer and the world she created.  It everyone was paired off a little too neatly (and heterosexually), well, better that than a sad ending, in this case.  

My Writing

I started the month with a guest post on the Nerdy Book Blog.  I shared some of my triumphs and tragedies as I read aloud to my middle schoolers.  I was trying to be funny, but I'm not sure I really was. While I'm on this topic, be sure you are checking out their awards each day this week!  So far they've posted the best fiction picture books, nonfiction picture books, and early reader books of 2015.  Great, great lists.

Otherwise, this will be my 11th post of the month.  One of which was making excuses for my absence, so I'll just refer you there instead of repeating them.  As seems to by typical, my wrap-up from last month got the most views, followed by my Top Ten Tuesday posts about my favorite winter/holiday books, best books I read this year, and favorite new-to-me authors of the year.  I also decided to join the 12 month classics challenge in 2016, and I got inspired to organize and prioritize my thousand-plus TBR list.  


You don't need to hear any more about my strep throat.  Seriously.  Instead, I'll leave you with a summary of the excellent book-related gifts I received this Christmas.

1.  My sister gave me a baseball hat that reads, simply, "Library."  As in--that's my #1 team.
2.  My husband found me a lovely, moody Call of the Wild t-shirt.
3.  A $10 gift card to a bookstore from my Secret Santa at work.  Basically, this guy I don't really know gave me chocolate all week and then a B&N gift card, so, best Secret Santa ever.
4.  My bookish Secret Santa did even better, of course.  Reading posters, tea and chocolate, and several great books.  So awesome.  
5. My sister got me two Truman Capote picture books, which is not a phrase I ever knew existed.  He wrote this very bittersweet and gorgeous stories from his childhood, one about Thanksgiving and one about Christmas, both featuring his elderly second cousin/best friend.  I love them, and hope to review them soon.
6.  My brother- and sister-in-law gave me a book about editing one's writing, which completely goes in my husband's win column, because there's no way they thought of that without some prompting from him.  

Also, I gave my daughter a copy of the new, fully illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which is almost like getting it for myself.  I'm pretty sure I'm more excited about it than she is, but she does appreciate it at least.  

All in all, a terrific ending to a year that has brought a lot of positive reading/writing development into my life.  I feel like I've found a piece of myself that has been missing for a few years, and it makes all the other things a little better too.  

Monday, December 28, 2015

TTT: The Next Ten

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish, even though I'm not focused on upcoming books right now.  But having started my prioritized to-read list for 2016, I'm further breaking it down into which books I'm going to read next.  It's been working well so far--I've read The Hired Girl, Winter, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, and Tonight the Streets Are Ours, all of which I've been wanting to read for quite awhile now.

These, then, are the next ten books I intend to read.

1.  Columbine, by Dave Cullen.
Well, this is embarrassing.  I have, after all, already posted a review for this book.  But my audiobook loan expired just before I finished it, which happened to be right when school break started (and thus, my commute halted), and I got sick, and Christmas was coming.  I want to go back and finish the last 30 pages or so, just so I feel done.

2.  We Were Here, by Matt de la Pena.  I love his other books I've read, and I was so impressed with him on author panels and at books signings during NCTE.  He recommended this book to my students, so I really want to read it.

3.  Wolf by Wolf, by Ryan Graudin
4. Not if I See You First by Eric Lindstrom.
These are the two most recent books from my Uppercase Box subscription.  I loved my first book and was meh on the second, but both of these look great.  NIISYF has a braille cover and a blind protagonist, so that is awesome all the way.  Also, I'd like to point out that all the books on this list so far are by male authors, which is kind of a departure from my usual reading.  I mean, of course, I read plenty of books by male authors, but I feel like the vast majority of YA that I read is by women.

5.  I plan to start the 12 Month Classics Challenge with David Copperfield.  It may take me more than a month to work through it, because I'll probably intersperse it with lighter fare.  But I was a huge Dickens fan in high school and college, and I'm excited to re-enter his world.

6. Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson doesn't sound that intrinsically compelling to me, BUT.  1.  Rae Carson.  2.  Wild excitement from others.  So I'm in.

7.  Is that a Fish In Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos.  I've been chipping away at this since I heard about it on Emerald City Book Review.  It is my favorite kind of nonfiction--breezy but intelligent, on a topic I know a bit about--enough to nod sagely, but not so much that it's review.  I've been experimenting with reading a chapter over breakfast on work days.  I also bought a copy for my brother-in-law for Christmas.  He's a linguist and a translator who at one point worked on translating technical documents from Russian to Japanese.  So, yeah.  He has a tiny bit more expertise than I do.  But I need to finish the book so I can talk to him about it.  Plus, you always get bonus points for referencing Douglas Adams in your titles.

Finishing Columbine, starting Copperfield and reading this feels like a serious change of pace for me.  But I used to read "serious" stuff all the time.  I mean, I've always read fun stuff too.  Not that nofiction and classics aren't also fun in their own way.  But beyond the blathering, I am feeling inspired to demand more of my brain.  (We'll see how long that lasts!)

8. I'll Meet You There, by Heather Demetrios is a book I've been steadily renewing from the library for months.  It's time to read it or return it, and I'm going to READ IT.

9.  Legend, by Marie Lu has been on my to-read list for over a year.  I haven't read any of her work.  I need to fix that.

10.  Okay, I can't really swear which books will be the last two-three on this list.  But I did just download an audio book of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, so that's a good bet. I really enjoyed her Jackson Brodie books, and am hoping for good things from this one as well.

Possibly substitutes or interlopers include: Leviathan, Another Day, Not a Drop To Drink, and In Real Life, all of which I have checked out from the library right now.  But either way, doesn't that look like a fantastic start to my year?

I'd better get busy this month though--the final round of judging for CYBILS starts January 1st, and I'll be reading whatever makes it through!  Also, I think I might have committed to reading a professional book over break and being ready to share what I learned with my team in January?  Hmm.  Less blogging, more reading, seems to be my message for myself right now.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas Break

I  doubt crowds have been checking my website, wondering where I've been, but all the same, I feel rather rude for disappearing for a week.

It's Christmas, I'm a mom, and I had strep throat.  I spent four days thinking I was coming down with something, then one night laying in bed, I was having to screw up my courage every time I had to swallow because it hurt so bad, and I was sort of wheezing when I laid on my back because my throat felt so full, and I finally realized--oh, I'm not GETTING a cold, I HAVE strep.  So I actually looked down my throat and yikes.  I'll spare you the description, but it freaked me out enough that rather than waiting to get it checked out at the clinic the next day I drove myself to the emergency room.  The doctor took a look, said, "Woah!" and waved off the nurse who'd just come in with the stuff for a throat swab.  "I can diagnose it from here," he said, and they gave me a shot of penicillin in my rear.

So I lost a few pre-holiday prep days to feeling like crap, and my husband's anxiety spirals at this time of year, and my daughter got strep too, and my son's stuff also amps up during holidays, all of which sounds pretty grim, but we've also been doing some really nice and enjoyable things with our time.  And I haven't been blogging.

I'll pick it back up over the next few days.  For now, I'll leave you with this:

(Not my photo, but my husband does have this cup.)

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Looking Towards 2016

For years, here is how I found books to read.

1.  About 70% of the time, I went to the library and browsed.  When I saw something that looked interesting, I took it home and read it--or didn't, sometimes, but I'm a pretty good judge of my own taste, so usually I read it.

2.  For about 15% of the time, I went looking for sequels or other books by authors I liked.  Usually when I found an author, they were well into, if not done with, any serial writing, so I would read them all one after another.

3.  When I was a kid, the remaining 15% was made up of books my sisters gave me, or that I found around our house.  After I moved out, I developed a habit of browsing bookstores and writing interesting titles down on my checkbook, then looking up those books at the library.  I found about 10% of my books that way, with the remaining 5% being the occasional book someone (still usually one of my sisters) would recommend to me.  There were a few books clubs over the years, but one book every month or two is not a statistically significant amount.  (Not that my percentages here are anything other than quick guesses.)

Around the time when I stopped carrying a checkbook--say 2009--I discovered Goodreads.  Suddenly, I was showing up at the library with more than a few titles scratched down.  Once I got a smartphone, the typical library visit consisted of me pulling up my "to-read" list on my phone, then cross referencing it with what was available on the library computer.  Sometimes I'd go ahead and request a bunch from home, then just pick them up as they came in.  I still browsed the shelves, but the percentage of books I found that was dropped dramatically.

Then this summer, I started book blogging.  Without even realizing it, I was getting buzz on books that weren't even out yet.  It turns out it's much faster to get through the holds list for a book that is just coming out instead of waiting until a book is so popular that I start to see it everywhere.  I also become a reading teacher, and was inspired to up my YA reading count in order to help kids find books they'd connect to.  My to-reads list went from about 200 books to over a thousand (and I discovered that I should refer to it as my TBR pile).

I knew better than to fall down the rabbit hole of ARCS--I'm resentful enough when I win a book in a Goodreads giveaway and then feel obliged to review it promptly.  Still, I am feeling more and more pressure to read more and more books.  I'm a fast reader, but I started feeling--not overwhelmed, exactly, but like I was spinning in circles.  There were books I wanted to read, but then I'd get distracted by some other book, and then I'd forget the plot of the book that I wanted to read the sequel of...

I sat down tonight and took a good look at that thousand-plus to-read pile.  If you handed me any one of those books and put me on a plane, I'd land with it either read or well started.  I'm not saying I'd love every one, but I would at least be interested enough to read them.  The question is, which were the ones I really want to read?

I created a new shelf, named, after some brief but intense internal agonizing, my Reading Hopes for 2016.  ("Goals" and "Plans" both made me tense.  I like to leave myself wiggle room.)  There are 172 books on the list, which is ridiculous.  I've read that many this year, but I know myself well enough to know that I will stray from the list whenever something else catches my attention.  Some of the books on my list are classics, some are backlist books of the last fifteen years or so, and some are brand new.  Most of them are YA, but not all.  There's a little nonfiction, mostly professional reading.  The list overall makes me very happy.

For all that I love spontaneity, I can also nerd out on organizing and processes.  My next goal--be still my beating heart!--is to roughly prioritize the books.  I mean, I HAVEN'T READ WINTER YET!    Clearly, I need to sharpen my focus.

I'm so excited!  I feel content and confident with my reading plans now.

How about you?  What books are closest to the top of your list?    What's your approach to finding books to read?  How much structure do you need?

Here's the shelf as of today!
my reading-hopes-2016 shelf:
Wendy's book recommendations, liked quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists (reading-hopes-2016 shelf)

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Teacher's Worst Nightmare: "Columbine" by Dave Cullen

Columbine by Dave Cullen

Published 2009 by Twelve
417 pages, Nonfiction

I wish I could remember which blogger was writing about audiobooks recently.  She recommended reading nonfiction that way, and then the clouds parted, angels started to sing, and I realized this was a great suggestion.  My main problem with audiobooks is that t h e y    a r e   s o o o o   s l o w.  I'm a plot junkie.  I read fiction because I want to know what happens next, and I want to know NOW, not in 32 hours.  But with nonfiction, I don't feel the same urgency.  This is why despite liking a lot of nonfiction, I hardly ever read any.  I get too distracted by my urgent need to read stories.

So what to read?  I narrowed my choice by comparing nonfiction on my to-read list with what the library's downloadable audiobook selection had, and ended up with Dave Cullen's Columbine.  I had confused Cullen with David McCullough, and didn't realize my mistake until after I'd started.  McCullough is a prolific and respected biographer and historian.  Cullen is a journalist who has, um, written a book about the attack at Columbine High School.  In my defense, it did win some awards when it came out in 2009, so I had this vague idea that it was a Should Read kind of book.


In spring of 1998, I was living with my parents and looking for a teaching job.  After living and teaching overseas for most of my twenties, I was getting ready to move my career back to Oregon.  I'd done my student teaching the previous fall, and my dad had sworn to never again make snide remarks about teachers' days off after he saw how hard I was working on evenings and weekends.  I continued to live at home, working a retail job, while I waited for the jobs to open up for the next school year.

Then Kip Kinkel murdered his family and shot up Springfield High School just an hour or two down I-5 from us.  Bizarre.  Shocking.  Sad.  We shook our heads at the tragedy, the waste of lives, the illness that left his older sister bearing all the pain and publicity.  But we moved on fairly quickly.

That summer I got my first U.S. teaching job and moved to the town I worked in for the next ten years.  I loved my job, although I struggled at it.  I loved my students.  I loved being independent again.

In spring of that first year, Columbine happened.  We called it a school shooting.  We were all horrified.  My dad told me, as stern as I'd ever seen him, "If that ever happens, don't be a hero.  Get out of there and save yourself."  This went directly against everything else he'd ever taught me, but I understood it as the plea of the loving parent that he was.  I told him the same thing I still know now--I have no idea what I'd do in that kind of situation.  I like to think my instinct would be to save my students.  I have no illusions, though, about how clear-headed I'd be in a terrifying emergency.  It's possible I'd crawl under a table and cry.  Over the years, I've had plenty of opportunities to ponder the question.  "Live Shooter Drills" are now part of the public school experience, and I hate them.  I hate the queasy mix of boredom and nervousness, the balancing act of getting students to take it seriously without actually freaking anyone out.  I hate knowing that no matter how rehearsed we are, the unexpected will always leave us vulnerable.  What if Jessica is in the bathroom?  What if Cory's allergies act up and he starts sneezing?  What if, inevitably, someone bumps into something and it falls over, launching a flurry of "Shhh!" and supressed giggles?

What if a shooter fires his way into our locked room and kills us?


I started listening to Columbine on my commute.  At first, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to follow through.  With so much terror in the world these days, why wallow in it?  I didn't own a TV in 1999, so I don't have many horrifying mental images from the event.  Did I really want to create them?  What could be gained by learning every detail of something I wish had never happened?

I thought of Holocaust narratives, of the importance of remembering, the danger of denial, and decided I'd keep going.  Soon, I was too caught up in the story to stop, even as it became more upsetting.

Cullen was onsite as a reporter through the whole ordeal.  He then spent years poring over evidence, notes, and documents, conducting interviews, reading and viewing the killers' diaries and videos, putting together timelines and organizing chaos.  Early in the book there's a minute-by-minute description of what went on that day.  There are also careful recreations of the last days of some of those killed.  In some ways, this feels manipulative, because of course you feel sad for all the last, unwitting goodbyes.  But again, it also honors the victims and their families by emphasizing their story.

He also delves into the pasts of the two young men responsible.  One kid is drawn as a psychopath, full of hate, rage, and inflated ego.  His family is described as being in denial, refusing to admit the truth--that their kid's behavior went far beyond youthful shenanigans.  The other kid is drawn as a self-loathing but brilliant young man from a loving and supportive family.  You can't help but wonder what would have happened to him if he'd never crossed paths with his murderous friend.  Would he have ended his own life without bringing others with him?  Would he even have gotten the help he needed to survive his pain?

Cullen has been criticized by some for emphasizing the killers' mental illnesses--one a psychopath, the other suicidally depressed.  What about the system? seems to be the main counterargument.  I just--no.  The system is flawed, God knows.  Donald Trump is a viable candidate for president, polite Minnesotan cops killed a handcuffed black teenager, health crises bankrupt solidly middle class families.  But we don't go on murderous rampages in response.  Institutionalized violence does not justify individual violence.

Besides the killers' mental states, there are a few key things Cullen wants us to know.

1. This was not a "school shooting."  This was a school bombing.  The plan was to blow up the cafeteria/library section of the building, taking out about 500 people, and then to pick of survivors as they fled.  When the bombs didn't explode (thank God for teenaged hubris and overconfidence), the killers started shooting and throwing pipe bombs in an impromptu change of plans.

2.  All that stuff we all knew--that the boys were outcasts, members of the Trenchcoat Mafia out to get jocks, girls who'd rejected them, and/or Christians--is bullshit.  They had plenty of friends.  They were athletes themselves.  There were no specific targets--they just wanted the biggest death count in terrorist history.

The "outcasts lashing out" theory is the one I had heard the most.  Schools scrambled to launch anti-bullying campaigns, to identify students who might be driven to violent despair by the unkindness of their peers.  It turns out that the recent focus on bullying victims as potential suicides is more realistic.

3.  This is the one that is super important.  There was a coverup.  Not just of decisions that turned out to be the wrong ones, like not getting inside in time to save the teacher/coach who bled to death in the science room, or allowing some parents to find out from the media that their children were dead.  Those things suck, but it was a horribly confusing and chaotic event, that despite their training, few police officers would really be prepared to handle anywhere at any time.

No, there was a deliberate coverup of the fact that another family had been sounding the alarm on one of the killers for a year and a half.  They had called the police 15 times.  The police had started to put together a search warrant to look for pipe bombs, then decided not to.  Again, nobody is prescient.  They made those decisions based on what they knew and their experience and training.  Horrifying, in retrospect, but not morally wrong.

What was wrong was calling a secret meeting of those involved and telling them to deny all of it.  Hiding and destroying records of the investigation.  Discrediting the family that had tried to warn everyone.  THAT is appalling.

As a reintroduction to audio books, Columbine was a success.  The narrator was unobtrusive, reading teenaged anger and excitement with appropriate energy, but otherwise conveying the story clearly without inserting his own personality.  I commandeered my husband's broken headphones for my commute.  They are the puffy, over the ear kind, which are far more comfortable than earbuds, and the fact that only one ear works was fine.  I don't need narration in stereo, and it made me feel more secure that I could hear sirens and other traffic noise as needed.   I am definitely going to continue listening to books as part of my drive--I can't believe I've been missing that opportunity for all these year!

I still have mixed feelings about reading this particular book.  I disapprove of rubbernecking, and try to resist that impulse to examine other's pain, to make public entertainment out of private tragedy.  It might seem silly to call this event "private," but for every single affected family, it wasn't just about the big public spectacle, but also about their own individual pain.  I'm not sure what good it does me to know more about what happened.  I'm glad that first responders have a different approach now, but that's not my job.  My job is to protect my students, and to not raise the next killers.  Does this book, with its description of mental illness and lies, really help me in that?  I don't think so.  Still, I admire the work Cullen put into it, balancing obsessive research with accessible story telling.

4 stars.  Difficult, but fascinating.  

And Now For Something Completely Different

I work in a middle school, which means we occasionally have spirit weeks, with a different dress-up theme each day of the week.

Yesterday was "Twin Day," in which pairs (or groups) of people wear similar outfits and do their hair the same way.

I was twins with my coffee cup.

And yes, I was just as pleased with myself as I look in this photo.

Which got me thinking about other fantastic spirit days.

*The "Prince or Princess" day when I donned a fancy bridesmaid dress and an aluminum foil crown, prompting a nearly mute student with autism to smile up at me and exclaim, "Ay, Maestra!" when I walked past her in the hall.

*The "Would You Still Love Me if I Dressed Like THIS?" day during my one year up at the local high school.  I went to town with patterned tights, flowered skirt, plaid shirt, striped scarf, giant garden hat and Crocs.  All day long, students walked into my room, stopped dead, and said, ""

* The "Gender Bender" day when I wore my husband's flannel shirt and khakis and painted a mustache on, then realized how much I look like my dad after all.

*The year I was teaching in a Riga high school, where my seniors were all 18 & 19, meaning of legal drinking age.  They had a pajama day, and one kid brought a thermos of hot cocoa that he offered everyone.  They would take a cup, have a sip, and say, "Oh!" and start grinning.  I declined to taste it, so I could maintain plausible deniability.  Disclaimer: I would react entirely differently in a US high school.

Forget about summer breaks and the privilege of watching young minds develop.  Spirit days are where it's at.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Discuss: YA, MG, NA, OMG

When I was a young reader, way back in the previous century, our local library had a "little kids'" section, where you'd find picture books and Dr. Seuss and Frog and Toad are Friends.  It had a children's section, where you'd find Little Women and The Black Cauldron and Betsy, Tacy, Tib, and Are You There God? It's Me Margaret.  And the rest of collection was the adult section.  By fifth grade, I was spending some time there, reading Oliver Twist or Agatha Christie, or doing research for a school project (yes, I used card catalogues).

The first new category of books I became aware of were chapter books, a vague term if I've ever heard one.  Technically, War and Peace is a chapter book, right? Still, it makes sense in the elementary classrooms.  It's not so much that they have chapters (Mr. Putter and Tabby books have chapters, but a beginning reader can still finish one in a single setting.)  What sets a chapter book apart from an easy reader is the complexity of plot.  Characters grow and change, multiple events take place that must be tracked, subplots crop up.

The next term that gained popularity was Young Adult novels.  Again, this made sense, especially as people besides Judy Blume, Norma Klein, and Paula Danziger started writing books specifically about and for teenagers.   At the stage when previous generations of readers left the children's section for the adult section, modern readers can find hundreds of great titles showcasing their peers.  Coming of Age stories have always been popular, but they were read by teens and adults alike without being considered anything other than novels.

But what about the teenagers who weren't comfortable with books about periods and masturbation, drug use and betrayals?  Or what about tweens who DEFINITELY weren't ready for that stuff, but who were looking for something a bit meatier than the tidy world of chapter books?  Middle Grade novels are the ones that bridge the gap.

Don't even ask me about New Adult novels, because I flat out don't know.  Are they just regular novels that happen to feature characters in their late teens and early twenties?  Are they smutty YA novels?  If a series follows a character from high school to college, like Anne of Green Gables, or Jessica Darling, do the books move from being YA to NA?

I'd like to know how YOU define these terms.  What makes a book one or the other?  Or are these subgenres at  best, false classifications at worst?  If the majority of readers of YA are grown adults, why don't we just call them novels that have a wide appeal?  As a middle school teacher, I sometimes walk a wire between offering books that are interesting to my students and books that won't freak out certain of their parents.  MG--totally okay.  YA...well, is it early YA or later YA?  If a book is recommended for 14 and up, and my students are aged 11-14, is it a good fit for my classroom?

And what the heck is NA?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: My Favorite Books of 2015

First, let me say that I haven't yet read Winter or The Rest of Us Just Live Here.  I'd been anticipating them for so long that now I'm a little afraid to read them.  I guess if they live up to my hopes, they can be on next year's list.

Next, I'm pretty sure that the post of two weeks ago about my favorite "discovered" authors this year could also serve as a decent top ten overall list.

I started out by sorting all my books on Goodreads and scrolling through the 4 and 5 star ratings I gave this year.  If I still remembered how great the book was, I put it on the long list.  I ended up with 39 titles.

I removed the picture books (with one exception) and professional reading, which whittled it all the way down to 34 titles.  This is where things got tricky.

If you ask me to name my favorite books from this year, I will shout at you, "Scorpio Races!  Made You Up!  Aristotle and Dante!  Simon Versus!  Challenger Deep!"  If you tell me I need ten books, I have to turn to Goodreads, and then I don't know how to narrow things down.  Should I go with my favorite books that have the fewest reviews, trying to drum up more readers for them?  But of my very favorites, only Challenger Deep is in the running for that.  (Seriously people?  Why have only 2,316 of you read this?  What are you doing with your lives?)

What if  I pulled the ten from my list that have the lowest ratings on GR?  Maybe then I could avoid having 90% shared titles with 90% of the people in the linkup.  But then I'd have to leave off all five of my true favorites.

This is hard.  (Or, maybe I'm overthinking it.)

Still, sorting my list by these two categories is pretty interesting.  The most-reviewed book on my list is Me Before You, by JoJo Mayes, with 266,454 ratings.  When I added it to the recent "new-to-me authors" TTT list, nobody seemed to recognize the book.  I guess this corner of the book blogging world is pretty focused on YA.

On the other hand, Autobiography of My Dead Brother, by Walter Dean Meyers, has only 795 reviews, despite being by one of the authors taught in classes and lining bookshelves in middle schools and high schools all over the country.  It is a graphic novel!  It fits into both #BlackLivesMatter and #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaigns.  I don't know how much more timely it could be, yet less than a thousand people have weighed in on it.

Of my 34 favorites, only one, Boy, Snow, Bird has less than a 3.5 average rating.  (I know, GR star ratings are unreliable, but it's still an indication of overall opinions.)  Twelve are honor roll students, with 3.5-3.99 average ratings.  Twenty more are as popular with others as they are with me, earning scores above a 4.0.

Further analysis shows me that two authors make the list twice: A. S. King and Leila Sales, which will not surprise you if you read my new-to-me TTT post a few weeks ago.

The oldest book on my list is Darkness Visible, published in 1990.  Best known for the wrenching Sophie's Choice, Styron's memoir of his struggle with depression was loaned to me when a family member was deep in the pit, and it really did aid my understanding and compassion.

It's also one of the only three nonfiction entries, all of them memoirs or biographies.  One is the picture book I kept on the list, Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation.  In the tradition of (but a very different style from) Ruby Bridge's Through My Eyes, this book gives us a child's eye view of one of the earliest desegregation battle.  Reading it to my 7th and 8th graders, over 60% of whom are Latino, opened up some great discussion on historic and current racism.

The other nonfiction entry is Carver: A Life in Poems, which is a biography told in verse.  I loved how it illuminated different stages of George Washington Carver's journey to greatness, both as a scientist and philanthropist.

This brings me to the other novel in verse, the Newbery award winning Crossover.  Hearing Kwame Alexander speak was one of the many highlights of the NCTE con
ference I went to.  The man drips poetry.  In college, he wrote a uninterested girl a love poem a day for a solid year.   They're married now.

Other nontraditional formatting made it on the list, with four graphic novels appearing.   This is a new development for me; two years ago I'd only read a couple of graphic novels, and now I seek them out.

I loved several books I felt I could classify as magical realism. A. S. King does her funky thing; Before I Fall does a Groundhog's Day repetition of an otherwise ordinary day; Thisby seems like such a believable place, other than the carnivorous water horses; one of the characters in Bone Gap is apparently Hades; and just when you think that Boy, Snow, Bird isn't going to go all Snow White on you, it kind of does.  Challenger Deep is harder to classify, but definitely is not your typical book.  It includes sketches and delusions or hallucinations, or maybe they're symbols disguised as visions?  Okay, maybe this is why it has so few readers, but honestly, if you just bear with it, it is SO GOOD.


Realistic Fiction is by far the most represented genre, with sixteen entries.  I think of myself as a YA fantasy and adult mystery reader, but a) there are a lot of good YA contemporaries out right now, b) as a reading teacher, I find that more of my students are drawn to these than to my favorite epic fantasies, and c) I figured that if I'm judging the CYBILS in this category this year, I should immerse myself in what's out there.

For a look at my sortable spreadsheet, go here.

TL:DR?  Here's the list, alphabetically by title:
Absolutely Almost Lisa Graff
Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the UniverseBejamin Salire Saenz
Autobiography of My Dead Brother Walter Dean Meyers
Before I Fall Lauren Oliver
Bone Gap Laura Ruby
Boy, Snow, Bird Helen Oyeyemi
Cardboard Doug TenNapel
Carver: A Life in Poems Marilyn Nelson
Challenger Deep Neal Shusterman
Cress Marissa Meyer
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of MadnessWilliam Styron
Everybody Sees the AntsA. S. King
Gabi, a Girl in PiecesIsabel Quintero
Grim Christine Johnson, editor
Made You Up Francesca Zappia
Me Before YouJojo Moyes
Mostly Good Girls.Leila Sales
Out of my Mind Sharon M. Draper
Out of the Easy Ruta Sepetys
Reality Boy A.S.King
Roller GirlVictoria Jamieson
Separate is Never Equal Duncan Tonatiuh
Sidekicks Jack D. Ferraiolo
Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens AgendaBecky Albertalli
Smile Raina Telgemeier
Sprout Dale Peck
Tender Morsels Margo Lanagan
The CrossoverKwame Alexander
The Reckoning Jane Casey
The Scorpio Races Maggie Stiefvater
The Woodcutter Reginald Hill
This Song Will Save Your Life Leila Sales
Truly Grim Tales Priscilla Galloway
WonderR. J. Palaccio

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Joining the 12 Month Classics Challenge!

Just when I'd decided that I am nowhere near organized enough to do any challenges, I caught sight of the 12 Month Classics Challenge, and decided to give challenges one more try.  I read a lot of YA novels, both because I love them and because of my job as a middle school reading intervention teacher, but I'm starting to feel like my reading life could use a bit more oomph.  YA novels can and do wrestle with big themes, but they tend to be--duh--focused on the issues of young adulthood, and they tend to be written in fairly straightforward ways that allow me to race through them.  I'd like to read more works that force me to slow down and think a little.  I'm not ready to go full-classics-club (50+ classics over five years), but I can do a book a month for a year, especially with the monthly themes to help me get focused.

I used to read a lot of classics, especially children's books and Victorian novels.  I read a bunch of Russian novels in college, as well as a few African works.  Still, there are vast swaths of classic novels I haven't read.  I'll put up a tentative title for each month, plus maybe a plan B.

January- A classic you've always wanted to read.
I love me some Dickens, but I'm pretty sure I've never actually read David Copperfield.  

February- A classic you've always dreaded reading.
Either The Bell Jar or The Second Sex.   These both sound really earnest and intellectual to me. 

March- A classic you've been recommended
Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth is not that old, but it's 25, so it's not new either.  My friend Victoria has been recommending it to me for years.  

April- A classic you've seen the movie/miniseries/TV show of
A collection of Sherlock Holmes stories.  My sister has always been a fan, but I've never been able to get into him.  Still, considering how much I love the BBC update, I'd like to give it a try.

May- An American classic
Black Like Me--John Howard Griffin

June- A British classic

I'll treat myself to a re-read of Hardy, either Tess of the Durbervilles or Far From the Madding Crowd.

July- A European classic (non-British)

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

August- A modern classic- Up to your interpretation

Either Kite Runner or Satanic Verses, neither of which have I ever read.

September- A children's classic

Emily of New Moon Farm, because I loved Anne so.  

October- A classic by a female author

Cold Comfort Farm because the movie was so much fun, and there's not a lot of that on this list.  

November- A classic by a male author

A Moveable Feast--Hemingway

December- A classic written under a pseudonym

The holidays definitely call for a shorter re-read.  I'll either go with How the Grinch Stole Christmas or Silas Marner.    Come to think of it, they have similar themes. 

Saturday, December 12, 2015

But You Don't Really Care For Music, Do You? Geraldine Brook's "A Secret Chord"

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks.

Published 2015 by Viking
302 pages, historical fiction

I received a copy of this from the publisher through a Goodreads giveaway.

Let me start by clarifying that the 2 star rating is entirely subjective--it didn't work FOR ME. I do not take issue with anyone who rates it higher.

This book took me quite awhile to finish, which indicates that the plot was less than gripping.  I usually read books in 1-3 sittings, depending on my schedule, but I picked up this one a dozen times over several weeks.  Let me try to tease apart why I was so uninterested.

1.  The story has already been written.  At its heart, this is a biography.  Sure, Brooks has to imagine personalities and conversations, but the broad outline of her story is that of a life that has already happened and been documented.  There will be no surprises; Absalom will not have a last minute change of heart, Bathsheba will not refuse her king, Solomon will not die as a teenager.

2.  I will now contradict myself and say that my unfamiliarity with the Bible story frustrated me.  When I'm reading fleshed-out history, or really, any retelling, I enjoy recognizing the details that come from the source.  I know nothing about the era between David & Goliath and David the Psalmist King, and I was frustrated by the fact that much of her carefully researched story did not resonate for me.

3.  Speaking of research, I kept getting distracted by ALL.  THE.  DETAIL.  Exactly what was being eaten.  Architecture.  The northern accent of character x.  Really?  If you tell me that a character in today's world has a specific accent, I can work out the implication about that character, and possibly get a feel for how they sound. Describe someone's home, and I know not only their economic status, but something of their personality. I do not have that information for the era this book is set in.

4.  Battles.  Battles are boring.  This is also my biggest complaint about Game of Thrones.

5.  All the visions.  I'm not sure how to take Nathan.  His visions are real, and the God who sends them is definitely that scary, Old Testament guy.  I don't buy it.  My 21st century mind could handle the idea that  these people believed in visions and prophecies, but it can't accept that they actually happened.  The visions are not especially useful, for the most part, and the ones that are lead to a bunch of slaughtering.

Admittedly, I'm pretty much agnostic at this point, but the God I sort of sometimes believe in doesn't glory in war.

6.  Saving the most petty for last: the title of this book meant that every single time I saw it sitting in my living room, every time I picked it up, every time I set it down, my mind was forced to sing the first verse of the Leonard Cohen song.  It's a great song, but there are only so many repetitions any song can take before becoming maddening.

2 stars.  Brooks is an excellent writer, but this book fell flat for me.

Monday, December 7, 2015

TTT: Great Authors I was Introduced To in 2015

Top Ten is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, and they chose a suitable year-end topic for this week. I don't stay up on upcoming releases very well, so I gave last week's theme a miss, but I can weigh in on which authors I "discovered" this year.

1. Leila Sales
I’ve read This Song Will Save Your Life and Mostly Good Girls, and was lucky enough to meet Ms. Sales at NCTE in November.  One book’s protagonist goes to prep school, and the other is working class, and both young women’s voices are sharp and sure.  These books are serious, but funny, which is one of my favorite things.  I’m really looking forward to reading Tonight the Streets Are Ours.

2. A.S. King even though I finished Please Ignore Vera Dietz on Dec. 30 of 2014 and wasn’t particularly blown away.  But then I read Everybody Sees the Ants, and Reality Boy, and Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future.  BLOWN.  AWAY.  I find it fascinating how angry her teenaged characters are, and rightfully so.  Also love the--magical realism?  Some sort of blending of realistic and impossible that is just accepted. She was also on an author panel I saw at NCTE and came off as very smart and passionate.

3. George R. R. Martin
I finally broke down and started Game of Thrones this summer.  Read the first two books and made it well into the third, but then school started again, and I had to admit that I don’t have the sustained concentration to get through his novels while I’m working.  But I’ll be back to Westeros!

4. Raina Telgemeier
I almost didn’t add her to the list, because my students have been reading her since 2014, but I realized that I didn’t pick up her work until late in last school year.  I wasn’t expecting much, so I was doubly impressed.  I flew through Smile, Sisters, and Drama, and even read one of her Babysitters’ Club adaptations.  She has a colorful and clear artistic style, and a nice sense of the interesting in everyday life.  

5. Benjamin Alire Saenz
I’m just basing this off of one book, but wow, what a book.  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.  I enjoyed it on so many levels--the poetic use of language, the #WNDB inclusion of gay Latino characters, the mid 80s setting, the loving parents--it just made me happy.

6. JoJo Moyes
Another one I’m basing off of only one book.  I didn’t know anything about her work,, but I’d seen One Plus One everywhere.  It was summer, so I was looking for a book for grownups (it’s weird reading so much YA that you feel a need to specify when you’re talking about non-YA lit), and Me Before You was on the shelf at the library.  It was another one that I related to, because of having to make end-of-life decisions for and with both of my parents.  

7. Michael B. Kaplan
Betty Bunny is a handful.  She hears this a lot, so she knows it must be a good thing.  When she discovers chocolate cake, she responds to her mother’s nighttime, “You know I love you,” with, “You know I love chocolate cake.”  But the real reason why I’ve added this picture  book author to my list is Betty’s big brother Bill.  When Betty declares her intent to marry chocolate cake, Bill wryly comments, “You’re going to have funny-looking kids.”  He is delightfully sarcastic, cynical, and reminds me of most teenaged boys I’ve known.

8. Nicci French
Nicci French is actually a mother/son duo that writes a fascinating mystery series.  Reclusive psychiatrist, twin brothers separated at birth, moody London weather.  Great stuff.

9. Jane Casey
Another fantastic mystery series.  Maeve Kerrigan is a strong character that is very appealing.  She’s a Irish-born detective in London, and she kicks butt.

10. Becky Albertelli
I was torn for position ten on this list.  I read a lot of great stand-alones over the course of the year, either debuts or new-to-me.  But Simon Vs. the Homo Sapien Agenda was heart-warming, smart, hilarious, timely...unbeatable.  

Alright, this is a very white, female list.  Kind of looks like the lunchroom at work, frankly.  I need to keep working on upping my reading of authors of color.

On a completely unrelated note, today is my 14th wedding anniversary.  Still don't know how I got so lucky.
No, I could NOT put down the last bite of my breadstick to get my picture taken, okay?  They were my mom's homemade breadsticks, for cryin' out loud.