Far From the Tree


Far From the Tree (audiobook)

by Robin Benway


I listened to the audiobook of Far From the Tree and it was 9 files, which is about 11ish hours.  I finished in 2-3 days.  Normal 6 file audiobooks normally take me at least a week.  I just couldn’t stop listening!  If you are a fan of the show This is Us, this book will give you the same feelings.  Feelings like you want to cry (but you’re not depressed), root for the characters (like they’re real people), and shake them when they’re being dumb.

This story follows three characters, who all happen to share a birth mom, but have different dads.  The youngest is Maya, and a lesbian who was adopted at birth by parents who are having marital problems.  Grace is the middle child, and she recently gave a baby up for adoption after her boyfriend dumped her and his parents shamed her.  Joaquin is nearly 18, and he has been in 17 foster homes and is ready to say no to being adopted by his currently foster family.  The three meet and realize that family isn’t just who you’re biologically related to, nor who you live with.  Family can take many different shapes.

What I liked about this book was pretty much everything.  I loved the witty dialogue and banter, the way the author made me really care about each character, and how I didn’t want it to end.  I wanted more of Grace and Peach, more of Maya’s struggle to find peace with herself, and Joaquin’s transition into a stable family.  I did not want the story to end, but I thought Benway did a great job at closing each person’s storyline to give them a future, and us hope that they would be okay.

What I didn’t like about this book was the emotion that it made me feel.  I don’t like to cry, especially not sitting in the parking lot of the nail salon, because I don’t want to stop listening to get my nails done (something I do so rarely, anyway).  I neglected all of my responsibilities to listen to the story instead.

Book 62 of 40

(Book 28 of 2018)

Betty Before X


Betty Before X (hardcover)

by Ilyasah Shabazz with Renee Watson


Betty Before X is a semi-fictional biography of Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X.  Before she became his wife, she was born to a young, unwed mother in Alabama.  She was raised by her aunt before moving back with her mother in Detroit during the 1940’s.  In the story, Betty’s mother Ollie Mae is a harsh woman who has no patience for Betty.  Betty feels unloved and ends up moving in with a loving couple from their church.  There, Betty is able to thrive as a young woman, joining the Housewive’s League to raise awareness of the mistreatment of black people in Detroit.  While they are not living with the Jim Crow laws, they still experience violence and discrimination, and have progress to make.  Betty remembers to count her blessings and work hard to move her community forward.

What I liked about this book is that I learned about a period of time I might not have known about otherwise.  It showed several sides of the story- while Betty and the Housewive’s League tried to get people to boycott stores they couldn’t be hired at (don’t give money to a store if they aren’t willing to hire black people), others felt like they had to do what they had to do to survive (if Sears is having a sale, that’s where people would go).  We teach that you can make a difference, no matter how small, but Betty and other characters felt hopeless at times, not seeing the difference they were trying to make.  I like that it’s based on a true story, and gives students perspective.

What I didn’t like about this book was how cruel Ollie Mae was to Betty.  As an adult, I can understand that she was probably resentful of Betty, and angry with herself for not being a good mother, so it was easier for her to be mean to Betty rather than admit that she made mistakes herself.  It was just hard for me to read as a mother, the way she was so awful to her.

Book 61 of 40

(Book 27 of 2018)

Love Hate & Other Filters


Love Hate & Other Filters (ebook)

by Samira Ahmed


In Love Hate & Other Filters, Maya is a senior in a small city in Illinois.  She is the only Muslim Indian girl in town, and her parents are immigrants who are very traditional and expect Maya to learn to cook and find a suitable Muslim Indian man to marry (after her studies).  They even try to set her up with the son of their friends.  Maya, however, is determined to go to film school at NYU and date a non-Indian boy at her high school.  When a suicide bomber drives a truck into the federal building in Springfield, Maya and her family are threatened, because the supposed bomber had the same last name as Maya.  She fears for her life when she is threatened by a classmate, which cause her parents to change Maya’s plans.

What I liked about this book is that it was easy reading, but I was caught up in the romance and the points of view.  Alternating chapters told the story of the suicide bomber and his aftermath.  I also learned about Indian culture and the pressures and expectations of desi women and their families.  I feel like books that are engaging like this are the best, because the reader is so caught up in the storyline, they don’t realize they are learning about something they didn’t previously know about, as well as give perspective and increase understanding and tolerance.  I would share this with my students if it didn’t discuss condoms.  I don’t think sixth graders are ready for that yet (at least not the ones that would be picking this book up!).

What I didn’t like about this book was the end.  It’s not the story I didn’t like, but I felt like after the climax ended, the story ended abruptly, and there was an epilogue that dragged on and on when it didn’t need to.  It was only the last 5% of the book, though, and that’s a small “dislike” for a meaningful and engaging book overall.

Book 60 of 40

(Book 26 of 2018)

One of Us is Lying


One of Us is Lying (audiobook)

by Karen M. McManus


One of Us is Lying is a murder mystery that is told from multiple perspectives.  Simon is a jealous, angry boy with a peanut allergy who dies at the beginning when he is poisoned with peanut oil and his epi pen goes missing, as well as all of the epi pens in the nurse’s office.  Four students find themselves in detention when phones are placed in their backpacks and found by a strict teacher.  Bronwyn is a future valedictorian with a perfect record.  Nate is a drug dealer on probation.  Cooper is a star baseball player who is being scouted.  Addy is the beautiful girlfriend of another star athlete.  All four are under investigation for the murder of Simon, and all had reason to hate Simon, but someone isn’t telling the truth.

What I liked about this book was that it kept me going, because I wanted to see how it ended.  I’m one of those people who will watch a horrible reality tv show just to see how it ends (especially if it’s a home rehab show).  I really wanted to see how it ended.  The end was kind of surprising, and it was interesting to see how the pieces fit together.  There was pretty good character development, too, especially with Addy.

What I didn’t like about this book was that I predicted the ending.  I shouldn’t be able to predict the ending.  There were also parts that were kind of slow, so I wasn’t too worried when I missed parts when my kids were loud or I tuned out.

Book 59 of 40

(Book 25 of 2018)

He Said She Said


He Said She Said (hardcover)

by Kwame Alexander


He Said She Said is a teen novel by Kwame Alexander, one of my favorites.  While the other books I’ve read have been written in verse, this one is written in paragraphs and in the form of text messages and Facebook status updates and comments.  Omar Smalls (T-Diddy Smalls) is the star football player and school “hoe” who immediately brags about his conquests an on again/off again girlfriend.  However, he falls for a smart, beautiful, and goal-oriented girl named Claudia, who causes him to second guess who he is.  He decides to win her over (and win a bet to sleep with her) by learning French, cooking for her, and better yet, siding with her when it comes to an uproar with the school board due to extreme budget cuts, which lays off teachers, cuts art and music programs, and limits library time.  Together, they lead a movement involving silent protest, civil disobedience, and social activism using Facebook, his popularity, and several family members from a different generation who lend their experience and advice.

What I liked about this book was the emphasis on teen activism and making an impact on the world, regardless of age.  Omar and Claudia learned from Omar’s uncle and great activists of the past, including Martin Luther King, Jr.  That shows that we learn from the lessons learned before our time.  Today, I watched the March for Our Life coverage on tv, listened to several teens (and younger!) making speeches, and felt the power that this book could have for those looking to start out small (within their school, not as global as the teens on tv today).  It was also done as background to a love story, which may attract more readers.

What I didn’t like about this book was the crudeness.  I realize it is for young adults or teens, and I am definitely not a prude, but when it said someone poured “cement” on him (to describe him naked in the locker room with a naked girl), that was a little too graphic for me.  I also stressed out about the other football team stalking him, looking for a fight.  There were SO MANY stories going on within this story.  So many problems to keep track of.  I am not sure if the love story stood out more than the social activism, teen pregnancy and promiscuity, or the school budget cuts, which are all very realistic and valid topics to read about in a teen novel.

Book 58 of 40

(Book 24 of 2018)

Lions & Liars


Lions & Liars (ebook)

by Kate Beasley


Lions & Liars comes out in June 2018.  It is about a boy named Fredrick Fredrickson (his mom wanted him to have a name people would remember) and his theory of life, which is that your place in life is like the food chain.  At the top is a lion, like the popular kid who doesn’t have to try to make friends- everyone gravitates toward him or her.  Fredrick, meanwhile, is the flea on the meerkat.  After being shamed by one of his friends at a party, Fredrick takes off in a small boat and finds himself downriver at a camp for boys needed reformation.  He is starving, and assumes the identity of the kid who didn’t show up, Dash.  However, he soon learns Dash has a certain reputation, and Fredrick needs to hold that up by being a lion.  Things, of course, turn sour and take a turn for the worst when he becomes stranded in a category 5 hurricane, but he learns some important lessons about life along the way.

What I liked about this book is that it will appeal to my students, and even kids below.  I can’t imagine it has a reading level over 4th grade, so it won’t be hard to read and understand.  Fredrick tries to be someone he’s not, which I know my kids can relate to, but he learns to accept who he is, good and bad.

What I didn’t like about this book is that it has some very unrealistic parts to it.  For example, a bunch of nails made a caravan of evacuated animals crash and the animals escaped.  For a young reader, that would be amazing and they wouldn’t even question it.  What would you think if you saw a lion attack a deer-like creature in front of you, or if you saw a monkey hanging out in a tree?

Book 57 of 40

(Book 23  of 2018)

The Creativity Project


The Creativity Project: An Awesometastic Story Collection (hardcover)

Edited by Colby Sharp


The Creativity Project is a fun anthology of short stories, comics, poems, illustrations, photographs, and prompts that were inspired by, and continue to inspire, creativity.  Various authors came up with two prompts (intros to stories, prompts, pictures, etc.), and these prompts were sent to different authors.  The author then chose between the two prompts.  One, he or she responded to, and the other is in the back of the book for the reader to respond to or use with students.

I read the first few stories on Tuesday night when I received the book (preorder, of course).  I finished one by Grace Lin, then gasped and made my husband read it.  The next morning, my friend (a fellow bibliophile) read it, and ordered the book.  That day, I read the prompt to my sixth graders and had them write. One wrote a poem, one a comic, one a list, and so on.  We shared ideas, explained what we thought, and then I read the story aloud.  Jaws on the table.  They were impressed, and asked if we could pause our other read aloud and make this our new one.

What I liked about this book was that it’s engaging for everyone, it screams creativity (and not just because it’s literally called The Creativity Project), and it was really hard to put down.  It is a nightstand book when you’re too tired to get into your regular book, and class read aloud for the 3 minutes before the bell rings.  It is a writing assignment, a warm up, and a motivational tool.  It’s a discussion starter.  A Google Classroom discussion topic (“What was up with Dav Pilkey’s story?!”).  I swear, I deserve commission, because at least 4 people bought this book on Wednesday when I brought it to school (are you reading this, Colby Sharp?).  My principal walked around asking who wanted one, because she was on Amazon buying her own copy that moment.  So yes, you there was a lot to like about this book, and it can’t be simplified to one particular story, element, or reason.  It’s in the title (An Awesometastic Story Collection), in the vast list of notable authors who participated, and the premise of the book.

What I didn’t like about this book… there was one story I attempted twice and couldn’t get into.  I assumed I was tired the first time, but I was lost the second time, so I’m saving it for another day.

Book 56 of 40

(Book 22  of 2018)

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King


Mighty Jack and the Goblin King (paperback)

by Ben Hatke


I really enjoyed Mighty Jack, but it left me hanging.  Mighty Jack and the Goblin King is the second installation, and as far as I know, Hatke only has or plans to write these two.  Jack and Lilley have gone into the garden to look for Jack’s sister, who was captured by a giant.  When they get there, they discover a world with Goblins (who turn out to be good), Giants (who are bad), and these weird rat things that chew through the vines and pipes.  Jack and Lilley are separated, but both face danger in search of Jack’s sister.  They make allies and fight the bad guys, and have a final challenge at the end that will appeal to all of my female students.  It doesn’t leave us hanging, but segues into another of Hatke’s series by introducing us to some of his other characters.

What I liked about this book was the girl power.  Lilley took charge and was given an important job where she faced tough choices, but came out on top.  Jack had to rely on Lilley’s quick thinking a few times, which is a nice change up from “the boy saves the girl.”  However, there was the porch scene that was a nice surprise.

What I didn’t like about this book was the way is was crammed in.  I felt like there was potential for other parts to be developed and explained, but overall, Hatke did a great job of writing an engaging graphic novel for my sixth grade readers.  And their teacher.

Book 55 of 40

(Book 21 of 2018)

Vincent and Theo


Vincent and Theo (audiobook)

by Deborah Heiligman


This wonderful piece of nonfiction tells the story of Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo van Gogh.  I have always been a huge fan of van Gogh.  When I first started getting into art, I studied him, did research papers on his life and work, cried when I saw a traveling show in LA featuring his work, and visited the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam about 14 years ago.  I thought I was a pretty big fan that I knew basically everything about him.  Well I was totally wrong.  After reading this book, I realized that I knew the basics and a lot of that was just blended together a sugar coated for kids.  For example, I knew he cut off his ear when he got into a fight with Gauguin.  I didn’t know that Gauguin was a fencer and there is still disagreement about whether van Gogh cut off his own ear, or Gauguin did it with his fencing sword.  This book also gave me insight into his childhood, various careers, relationships, and mental illness.  I learned he was starting to gain attention before he died, and many painters attended his funeral.  The biggest thing for me was Theo’s wife’s influence on Vincent’s career.  I guess I thought his paintings were just there and were then discovered for their awesomeness, but it was Johanna who propelled his career forward, despite Vincent and Theo being deceased.  I loved loved loved that I now know Theo and not just Vincent, because the two were equally impactful on Vincent’s work.

What I liked about this book was that while I am not a big nonfiction fan unless it is professional development or something, I fell in LOVE with this book.  I might need to own it instead of just borrow it from the library.  I can’t stop thinking about it!  I knew a lot about van Gogh already, so I thought it was going to be like a text book about an artist I really love. I had no idea it was a love story between two brothers.  The author told equal parts Vincent and Theo, and we can see both had troubled lives, but they were the most important person in each other’s lives.

What I didn’t like about this book was that it took me awhile to get into it.  I think that’s because I am not normally a nonfiction reader, so it took a few chapters for me to realize it was a story with characters, only those characters were real people who once walked our Earth.  Once I got into it, I couldn’t stop listening.

Book 54 of 40

(Book 20 of 2018)

Amal Unbound


Amal Unbound (ebook)

by Aisha Saeed


Amal Unbound is about a girl named Amal living in a small community in Pakistan.  She is the oldest of five girls.  She realizes her parents desperately wanted her newest sister to be a boy after her mom falls into a postpartum depression, and Amal is left to run the household in her place.  Because her father pulled her out of school to help with the family, Amal is angry.  She gets herself into trouble when she talks back to a landlord, and is taken from her family to pay their debt as an indentured servant in his house.  This makes her even more angry, and frightened she will never have her freedom, her family, or her education, which she so desperately longs for.  Amal must find a way to  continue her education and find the strength within herself to go on.

What I liked about this book was that Amal found a way to stay strong and find a way to go on, despite the most desperate of situations.  When it seemed like she would never have what she desired- an education, her family, and her freedom- she found a way to stay positive and carry on.  Readers will hopefully see that despite the hardships we face, including times where we cannot control what happens to us, we have to hold on to hope, as well as find inner strength to carry on and make the most of a situation.  I also appreciate that Amal’s goal in life was to get an education and become a teacher.  Finally, at the end of the book, there is a blurb on Malala, a role model and cheerleader for women everywhere, particularly in countries where educating women is not a priority.

What I didn’t like about this book was that it was a frustrating reality.  Although Pakistan is a country that is changing, indentured servitude is something that exists.  We take our freedom and right to education for granted here in America.  I hope this opens the eyes of my students so they realize how lucky they are to have books at their fingertips and the opportunity to learn, despite being female or poor.

Book 53 of 40

(Book 19 of 2018)