Review (Plus)

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): ‘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)

Review (Plus): ‘Wanted’

Wanted_9781492635994_d73edIn 2015 Betsy Schow gave us Spelled and with it the Fairy Tale characters Rexi (the feisty, sarcastic and narcissistic daughter of Robin Hood), Dorothea, and Kato, all battling the Wicked Witch in the Land of Oz. I adored this book (see my review here), so I was elated to get my hands on Wanted, the next installment in Schow’s Storymakers series.

At the end of Spelled Dorothea is cursed, and evil is running amok. Now we discover still more menace has been unleashed. Rexi struggles to defend Sherwood Forest, but she’s losing her memory. And as if that weren’t enough, Kato is falling in love with Rexi, even though he’s already Dorothea’s boyfriend. This madness must stop! Rexi sacrifices herself knowing Dorothea will never let her friend’s story end. Will Rexi finally move up from being a sidekick and write her own destiny?

As with the last book, I thoroughly enjoyed the advice columns, recipes, and snippets of humor from other Fairy Tales at the beginning of each chapter. In Wanted, Schow has changed her narrator from Dorothea to Rexi. Can we look forward to a third installment told from Kato’s point of view? I hope so. (Fingers crossed that I am correct, but I merely review, I don’t have any say in this.) Rexi is a quick witted narrator, and when she finds herself singing a song about ‘letting it go,’ I laughed. Of course we have our protagonist singing ‘Let it Go!’ Way to go Schow on incorporating modern day lingo into her fairy tale story.

In the classroom:

Twisted (or Fractured) Fairy Tales are a great concept to teach in seventh & eighth grade English classrooms in preparation for spring testing. One of the main tasks required by state testing is the ability to draft an essay. Use this as a fun essay for students to draft and edit.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.5: With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.


Wanted by Betsy Schow (Sourcebooks Fire | 9781492635994 | February 7, 2017)

Reviews (Plus): ‘Puck’ & ‘Saving Hamlet’

puck_doubletpressIn the newest Twisted Lit Novel, Kim Askew and Amy Helmes’ retelling of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, we meet Puck, a young woman lost in the foster care system who has arrived at DreamRoads, a wilderness camp in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but her own skills of wit, manipulation and control. Puck’s time there will either set her free or enslave her until she ages out of the system. Each child may return to the world–or not–depending on their ability to conquer the challenges set out for them. Much like the Puck in Shakespeare’s play, Puck finds she must lie to and betray in order for herself to stay the queen of her own life.

Puck is a great book for a counselor to put into the hands of readers whose story is similar to Puck’s. Anyone who has felt left out or abandoned will enjoy this story.

savinghamlet_9781484752746_2ef7c

As Saving Hamlet begins, our protagonist, Emma, has just chopped off her hair to start her sophomore year fresh–and in the hope of catching the eye of the senior who’s directing the fall production of Hamlet. Emma has little experience, and she is shocked when she discovers that her predecessor has moved and she is in charge!

The book’s humorous scenes–the try-outs, the nightly notes, the tech crew antics–are only enhanced when Molly Booth brings time travel into the story. When Emma falls through a trap door, she is transported from present day rehearsal to the original production of Hamlet. She quickly adapts and eventually takes her new-found knowledge back to the present to help her peers produce an amazing show.

In all my years of theater teaching I don’t think I have found a book I would like to get into every star-struck teen I taught as much as Saving Hamlet. It’s a theater student must read–perfect for stage managers, high school stars, the tech people in black, and the senior who wants to run the show.  I love, love this unique and witty retelling of Shakespeare’s classic play!


Puck by Kim Askew and Amy Helmes (Doublet Press | 9780998161303 | November 15, 2016)

Saving Hamlet by Molly Booth (Disney-Hyperion | 9781484752746 | November 1, 2016)

Review (Plus): The Lost Property Office

thelostpropertyoffice_9781481467094_9480aBookshelf Blurb: In the English world of lost properties, a Section 13 should never happen–especially in the form of a 13-year-old boy who is missing his father. A bit of Watson & Holmes, magic and mystery explode in this debut novel by a former US Air Force Stealth Bomber Pilot.

America’s Review:

When I read the author bio on this book I was intrigued. James R. Hannibal, author of The Lost Property Office, was a US Air Force stealth bomber pilot and Predator mission commander. Given this impressive vitae in the form of a middle grade read, I had to peruse what mystery and mayhem would be found. In less than 24 hours I had devoured over 300 pages–and with a few left, I stayed up even later to finish!

Our main character, Jack Buckles, is left in charge of his annoying and somewhat bratty little sister Sadie, while his mother goes to find his MIA father. Mr. Buckles Senior is a salesmen who did not come home from his last job forcing his mother to leave the United States in search of her husband in England. Sadie, bored with her tablet within minutes of her mother’s departure, forces Jack to leave the safety of their hotel room, and here begins the twist of the book.

The use of modern day devices and speech will help the young readers when they are suddenly immersed in historical London. Hannibal links the past to the present with the skills soon discovered in the Buckle men as Jack must determine who is father is and the man he wants to become. Sadie leads them to the Lost Property Office where they must complete forms, but alas these are not ordinary forms. The Ministry created the Lost Property Office to help find what was lost and also to keep things hidden–including people.

In the classroom:

Jack is a seer of things beyond the obvious; he can hear, see and sense the shadows of our past giving him the opportunity to solve mysteries of long-ago; however, crimes cannot be solved without a partner, so much like Holmes & Watson, Jack stumbles on a peer who can help him interpret his senses. Find a peer for this assignment, as group work makes it more complicated to agree on visions–as Jack soon discovers!

In the social studies classroom it is fun to challenge your students to create a what-if scenario. This would be a three-part essay. One: If they could go back in time, what time period would they chose and why? Two:  Research the event and historical aspects of this time period. Three: Create a different ending to the story giving specific examples of who might have made a difference decision to change the fate of the event.

Using CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.2 for grades 6-8: Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.


The Lost Property Office by James R. Hannibal (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers | 9781481467094 | November 8, 2016)