America Grelinger

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 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 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)

Review (Plus): ‘The Bone Witch’ by Rin Chupeco

TheBoneWitch_9781492635826_28eb1America’s Review:

With short, concise chapters blending the past and present, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, quickly hooks readers with its ability to seamlessly weave together magic and fantasy. Reluctant readers and YA fans alike will love this book. As we first meet our protagonist Tea, she is resurrecting her brother from his freshly dug grave. Tea’s ability to revive the dead shocks her community; they haven’t seen such a young a Bone Witch–or dark Asha. Tea too is both horrified and enthralled with her newfound magic. She is curious, but cautious about what this means for her future.

With her brother, Tea moves into an Asha house where she can be trained and taught to respect her magic. Some there are jealous of the powerful and ambitious witch and will do anything to destroy young Tea. But with the help of three other Ashas, Tea discovers who she is destined to become.

Tea knows she must keep the dark power within her hidden and under control. She wants to help win the war for her people, but in doing so she also creates turmoil. Will she ultimately be a good witch? The Bone Witch ends with true cliffhanger–one which leaves all of us eagerly awaiting the sequel.

In the Classroom:

This is one of those books where a lesson plan doesn’t come immediately to mind. Many times the comparison between the house of the Asha and a geisha house came to mind. The Ashas’ costumes, customs, and ability to entertain were very similar to the life of a geisha. The Bone Witch is a wonderful book and one which reads quickly. The mix of characters–both boy/girl, evil/good–make it a good book to put in the hands of any student who enjoys fantasy, magic, or historical information.

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco (Sourcebooks Fire | 9781492635826 | March 7, 2017)

Review (Plus): ‘Simon Thorn and the Viper’s Pit’

SimonThornViperPit9781619637153_26b6cI love finding a strong male protagonist in a middle grade series! Aimee Carter has followed through on her promise with the second book in her Simon Thorn series, Simon Thorn and the Viper’s Pit. Simon Thorn is a boy who struggles with his identity, his emotions, and the sense of belonging. He has just discovered that he is an Animalgam. He has the ability to change from a person into a golden eagle, making him heir to the Bird Kingdom. Simon also discovers he has a twin brother who can shape-shift into any animal he chooses, thus making him the Beast King. Simon eventually learns that he too can transform himself into any animal in the kingdom. Can there be two Beast Kings in the same family?

Before he can deal with that, Simon discovers a postcard from his kidnapped mother, and he knows he must go to her. Simon calls upon his friends from the first book in the series, and we are reunited with Ariana, Jam, and Winter once again. Each brings a special talent with them on the adventure. We also meet new Animalgams who increase the excitement and add multiple plot twists.

Simon, along with his readers, continues to learn new personality traits he possesses. It is this ability to relate to his audience which makes reading The Viper’s Pit thoroughly entertaining. Simon doesn’t know what is going to happen, and the question of “What will happen to me when I am caught?” is always foremost in his mind– again, like the young readers of this series.

Not all questions are answered, and Simon must deal with the secret he carries into the third installment. For my part, I can’t help but tweet, “When will we get the next book, @aimee_carter?”

In the Classroom:
For those schools who do AR, order a test for the Simon Thorn series–it is a wonderful investment to encourage your students to read more than just one book. This is a series to entice young readers, offering adventure and fantasy. Simon Thorn and the Viper’s Pit is one to recommend and be guaranteed you won’t be wrong.

Simon Thorn and the Viper’s Pit by Aimee Carter (Bloomsbury USA Childrens | 9781619637153 | February 7, 2017)