America Grelinger

Review (Plus): ‘The Hawkweed Legacy’

Ms. America’s Review: I love when the wait is finally over and you get to touch, smell and devour the next book in a series, which I was able to do with The Hawkweed Legacy, book number two by screenwriter Irena Brignull, which hits shelves tomorrow.

A quick synopsis of the first one, The Hawkweed Prophecy, which will be released in paperback on the same day: Two girls–Poppy and Ember–are switched at birth: one has magic running through her veins, the other is a mere mortal. One is to be ruler over the Covens of Witches, the other will just be. A jealous aunt craving power casts a spell switching these two girls at birth, their altered destinies interfering with the powers of the universe. As Karma takes hold of their lives we see Mother Earth prevail and these two girls discover their true identities.

Throw in a homeless boy, Leo, who befriends them both (as they always do), who tests their love and loyalty while struggling with his own painful past.

The prophecy dictates Poppy Hawkweed will govern the witches, but she has fled to Africa to escape the responsibilities given to her. Charlock Hawkweed, her mother, leads the Coven in her absence. The witches start to revolt and Charlock knows she must find Poppy and lead her back to her rightful place: leader of the Coven.

At first I found Charlock to be a shy and timid witch who was a mere follower, doing whatever her sister, Raven, bid. My heart yearned for Charlock who held Ember close and protected her, despite knowing her true daughter was elsewhere. But the thought process of this unsuspecting reader was far from the truth. Charlock had a past–one we are told in this book, one which changed my thoughts from innocent Charlock to conniving and slightly evil. Once I had realized her true intentions it changed my thought process on how the Hawkweed Legacy was to ever come to fruition.

Our characters evolve giving more insight to the Prophecy. As Charlock goes in search of Leo’s mom, we glean more about his past and the powers he possesses. We also see Ember understand the depth of being a human tied to a Coven of very powerful witches. I was thrilled to see the development of the characters I so loved in the first book. I am hopeful to learn more in the third book which is promised to come sooner than later. I can’t get enough of the Fantasy genre, so this is good soul food if you’re in to that kind of thing!

In the classroom: Fantasy abounds! When you are overwhelmed grading papers, I encourage you to think outside the box and NOT make your students write a book report (CCLS.ELA-Literacy.SL.1-12.5). Instead invite your students to create a board game based on a Fantasy Book. Write clear rules of the game. Use direct quotes from the book. Use Character questions. Use Setting questions. It is a great way to establish comprehension without having to grade another paper. Each year Hasbro Gaming Lab opens up submissions for gaming ideas, so for extra credit have your students submit their idea and show you proof for submitting their book/game.


The Hawkweed Legacy by Irena Brignull (Weinstein Books | 9781602863149 | August 15, 2017)

Review (Plus): ‘One for Sorrow’ by Mary Downing Hahn

Bookshelf Blurb: “In flew Enza” was a playground chant, but influenza was a real epidemic in 1918. The mean girls who chanted this discover that they can’t cheat death as quickly as they can wish it upon others. A dark, sinister and creepy ghost story.

Ms. America’s Review: Mary Downing Hahn is an author I quickly give to any middle school student asking for a ghost story. I never hesitate, and she has never disappointed. Her newest book, One for Sorrow: A Ghost Story, can easily be classified as fantasy with a some useful crossover into historical fiction.

One for Sorrow gives us Annie, an only child who has recently moved to a small town. Annie is immediately greeted by Elsie who demands instant friendship. At first Annie is appreciative of the friendship until she realizes Elsie is a social outcast. Elsie is mean to Annie, but Annie is afraid to leave Elsie despite her mean spirit until the week Elsie goes missing from school. After that, Annie joins the other girls in their taunting and cruelty toward Elsie.

School is soon cancelled due to the outbreak of influenza and the girls take advantage of this by attending wakes of those who have passed, enjoying the free cakes and cookies. It isn’t until they go to the wake of Elsie that Annie discovers she is being haunted by Elsie’s lost soul. Annie is sent to an insane asylum hoping to remove Elsie from her life, but poor Annie’s torment is just beginning.

The flu epidemic of 1918 was a reality for the United States and, thanks to flu vaccines, is more history than reality for today’s young readers. Within twenty-four hours of the flu’s first symptoms, its victims were dead. A simple black wreath would adorn the front door of the deceased telling neighbors the house was in mourning. This tragic time in our country is not often taught, as it was overshadowed by the coming of World War I. One for Sorrow is both a chilling ghost story and a useful history lesson.

In the classroom: Ghost stories allow creative writing to occur while also allowing Common Core to be met and all in the month of October! Read aloud passages from the text: especially the part where Rosie has made up a jump rope chant rhyming “In flew Enza” into the art of jumping between the ropes. If you miss, the flu has got you and you are dead. What chants can your students incorporate into a unit of social studies?


One for Sorrow: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn (Clarion Books | 9780544818095 | July 18, 2017)

Review (Plus): Emily and the Spellstone

Bookshelf Blurb: All Emily wants for her birthday is a phone, but not resembling an iPhone with apps that destroy things that go bump in the night! She didn’t realize wishes can come (sorta) true.

Ms. America’s Review:

Poor Emily just wants a phone for her birthday; she isn’t even asking for a certain kind or data plan, but since her sister has to go to physical therapy for texting fingers, it is a lost cause. As she wanders angrily away from her family birthday party at the beach, muttering notions of destroying her family, she discovers a rock…

Emily and the Spellstone by Michael Rubens gives us a character who is suffering from the angst of not fitting in. She wants to be normal, but even her parents forget her true age on her birthday! She thinks all of her woes will become rainbows if she could just have a phone. Most preteen kids can relate to Emily, and they will commiserate with her immediately. Emily’s unique hobby of collecting rocks–or more of a habit at this point in her life–becomes her undoing as she finds an Iphone looking rock on the beach. She picks it up declaring to herself this is as good as life is going to get. She puts it haphazardly on her windowsill that evening, not realizing the moon was the charger it needed to power on.

Along with the phone comes a demon protector who must do as Emily bids, but the minute he is released he will eat her. Just when Emily feels life cannot get any worse, it does. She learns she is the spellstone master and must learn the ‘apps’ in order to save her brother who has been kidnapped by the ultimate evil family in another dimension.

Michael Ruben is a former producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and his book’s wit and comical situations will appeal to any middle grade reader. Emily and the Spellstone is quite comical, and the puns do not stop. Unusually, it is a book which has no mature content which is written at a higher reading level, so it’s a perfect option for those seven- and eight-year-olds who can read at a higher level. This is a start of a series. Introduce to your second and third graders, and they’ll keep reading it into sixth grade.

In the classroom:

Use electronics in the classroom. There are many amazing, free tools to use in your classroom. One of my favorite ones is Prezi.com. It has a multitude of Powerpoint presentations already created for you to use in your classroom. Or you can use their software for free to let your students create a report. It’s super easy to use and navigate. Make your presentations fancy to show off your techy skills or simple and to the point.

Another favorite classroom tool is Khan Academy. It is wonderful for science and math. It allows your students to create accounts and invite a teacher (or parent) to be their coach. My last tech tool lifesaver is Remind.com. It allows you to mass text or email your parents to stay in communication with them. Parents also cannot email you back through this service, so they are forced to email you or talk with their child about your message. This is a great tool to allow your parents to know about upcoming events and no one can say, “We didn’t know….”


Emily and the Spellstone by Michael Rubens (Clarion Books | 9780544790865 | June 13, 2017)

Review (Plus): ‘You May Already Be a Winner’

Bookshelf Blurb: If only hitting ‘send’ on a virtual contest would mean winning, but in a world of ‘Walter Mitty’ type daydreams this is the only hope Olivia Hales has while living in Sunny Pines Trailer Park with an MIA dad and a mother who works yet can’t afford daycare, making Olivia hide her sister in a janitor’s closet in the middle school–totally embarrassing.

Ms. America’s Review:

Olivia Hales’ Merry-Maids-uniform-wearing mother is screaming at her to get out of the pool and help her find her sister, but Olivia is lost in a daydream. She can escape all of her loser moments because She May Already Be a Winner. Ann Dee Ellis has created a realistic world of middle school angst in her debut middle grade novel.

Olivia is stuck in the Sunny Pines Trailer Park watching her youngest sister, doing the laundry, making dinner, and trying to keep up with school while her mother goes to work every day. Her father has left the family and is living in Bryce Canyon working as some type of forest ranger, or so we conclude from daily emails Olivia sends him. Olivia wants to go back to school as she fondly watches her neighbor leave for school every day, but she knows she must be responsible for her sister and even her mom.

One morning Olivia is told by her mother that she must return to school. The truancy office has sent a notice. Olivia has missed half of the year and is behind in all of her class work. Her teachers try to reach out to her, but she is used to being independent, and she fears they are merely judging her and her family. Making matters worse her five year old sister who adores her manages to get kicked out of daycare, and Olivia is forced to offer her mother help again. She will take her sister to middle school and hide her in a janitor’s closet. When one afternoon during passing period she goes to check on her sister and give her a snack to her horror she discovers her sister is gone.

Olivia tries to maintain hope and dignity throughout the book. She is unaware of her mother’s choices, but refuses to let her mom shoulder them by herself. Her unfailing devotion to her family made me want so much more for Olivia than her parents were providing. I want to foster every Olivia out there. Olivia is a strong person and one who I kept hoping would finally become a winner. You May Already Be a Winner is a powerful book for those of us who have Olivias in our lives and want to help both the child and the parent.

In the classroom:

Like many students I have encountered through my years in the classroom, Olivia is a person I admire. Her undying hope is a mystery to me, even as my heart was breaking for this lovely young lady. She is the silent student in the classroom who has too many burdens to bear at home to do her homework. Students like Olivia have hope because sometimes that is all they have to hold on to.

As a teaching tool I would take an excerpt from this book, making students read it and decipher its “deeper meaning.” I especially liked when Olivia’s male teacher tried to relate to her and she became rude and mouthy to him. She even goes so far as to comment on his hair. She wasn’t like this throughout the book. Why is she lashing out at this teacher who is trying to help her and offer an escape?


You May Already Be a Winner by Ann Dee Ellis (Dial Books | 9781101993859 | July 11, 2017)

Review (Plus): ‘This is Really Happening’

ThisIsReallyHappening_9780448493589_e2ca3Bookshelf Blurb: BuzzFeed Senior Writer Erin Chack has put pen to actual paper sharing her trials and tribulations of being a teen cancer survivor. Bald, scared, yet witty and determined, Chack makes you laugh at her stories while compelling you to embrace death as it is inevitable.

America’s Review: We all die–it is inevitable, but how we embrace death and its arrival speaks loudly of a person’s character.  When Erin Chack is told she has cancer at the age of 19 and her mother is diagnosed with it a year later, she discovers “normal” can be defined in a multitude of different ways.

A week doesn’t pass without my hearing of someone who has been touched by the effects of cancer and its aftermath.  Having recently lost an aunt to cancer, I started reading this book cautiously.  I was not ready to read a gut-wrenching, painfully sad book about a teenager diagnosed with cancer. By the third paragraph, however, I found I was not weeping, but laughing. Chack’s voice and language draw you into her story–not just cancer and its effects, but about her life.

She is correct: we all die. It is a completely normal process, but telling people you have the dreaded “C” word alters the version of death. Each chapter in the book is a different chapter (or experience) in her life. I was relieved to discover Erin already has a steady boyfriend prior to cancer, so there wouldn’t be any moments of falling in love/dying moments. Nope, not in this story. Erin tells us her first french kiss was slimy–just some guy’s tongue in her mouth. She shares her awkward moments of relationships from ninth grade to her present day working at BuzzFeed.

This Is Really Happening isn’t a YA fall-in-love-while-having-cancer book. This is nonfiction. This really happened to her. Bravo, Erin, for writing a book about cancer without it being a cliché.

In the classroom: Death doesn’t ask your age before it arrives. Death comes knocking despite religion, race or creed. When a student dies it can be confusing and difficult to understand.  The young feel invincible; no one young should ever die. But as Erin tells us, it happens. Death is cancer in this story, but it can reach our children through illness as much as a myriad of other accidents. Teaching students how to cope with mortality is essential when it arrives at the classroom.

One way to explore death in the classroom is through poetry. Emily Dickinson’s  Because I could not stop for Death explores the ability to feel invincible as many of our young teens do, but still concludes with the inevitable “eternity.” The poem’s ABAB format allows for rhythm in poetry to be taught alongside personification.

For your high school classroom, or more high level students, both Elegy in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray or To an Athlete Dying Young by A. E. Houseman both explore the idea that it doesn’t matter who you are or your age; die with pride. This is true of Erin Chack’s book as well, thus allowing dialogue for death and the recommendation of  this book to your students. When you can combine a nonfiction YA book and tie it to poetry it will broaden your students prospective–especially those who may be reluctant to branch into poetry or nonfiction, or just an altogether reluctant reader.

Death Be Not Proud by John Donne is always my go-to poem for my students. I make sure to send this poem home and give them a few days to read and interpret it. I encourage them to discuss it with their peers and family. Upon due date, as a class, we discuss it and then they receive their narrative essay: the obituary. It is enlightening to read their inner perspectives. For extra credit, they can read it out loud. There aren’t many takers on the extra credit, and it always baffles me.


This is Really Happening by Erin Chack (Razorbill | 9780448493589 | April 25, 2017)