Tag Archives: summary

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes

by Chris Crutcher, 1993

Classification:  YA Fiction

Genre: Realistic/Issues

Age Level: 13+

Subjects:  Competition/High school sports, friendship, high school, freedom of speech/expression

Reader’s Annotation:  When his best friend suddenly stops speaking, Eric “Moby” Calhoune knows something terrible is going on and he is determined to help her through it.

Main characters:    Eric Calhoune, narrator, earned the nickname “Moby” because prior to joining the swim team he was overweight
Sarah Byrnes, terribly scarred from a childhood accident, Eric’s best friend, suddenly stops speaking and is a patient at the hospital
Sandy Calhoune, Eric’s mother who works as a writer for the local newspaper
Carver Middleton, Sandy’s boyfriend
Virgil Byrnes, Sarah’s sinister, overbearing father
Mr. Mautz, school administrator
Ms. Lemry, English teacher and swim coach
Dale Thornton, middle school bully with whom Sarah Byrnes forged a tentative friendship
Steve Ellerby, a fellow swimmer and friend of Eric’s, father is a preacher
Mark Brittan, a swimmer and model student, Christian
Jody Mueller, Mark’s girlfriend who breaks things off to pursue Eric

Summary:  Sarah Byrnes refuses to speak but her best friend Eric Calhoune still knows how to communicate with her.  To get to the bottom of the mystery that has become his friend, Eric seeks the insight of former school bully Dale Thornton and discovers a shocking secret.  Meanwhile, during Ms. Lemry’s Contemporary American Thought class, yet more secrets are uncovered, this time about Eric’s swimming rival, the seemingly perfect Mark Brittan.  As the revelations pile up, the time to take action draws near, but with an unsympathetic school administrator and two different but equally determined fathers standing in the way, can anyone get the help they need?

Controversial content:  Abortion, suicide, child abuse, fundamentalism


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Battle Bullying with Books

Starting Young

Last week, my daughter told me about a troubling recess incident at her school:  apparently, a game of “Lego City Police” devolved into the playground version of police brutality.  Teachers were alerted and intervened but not before one of my daughter’s kindergarten classmates was punched and scratched by another kid.

In her responses to my “casual” questions, my daughter revealed that the boy who was punched/scratched is not well liked among his peers.  She says the other boys don’t like him because he doesn’t brush his teeth.  The only girl police officer in the game, my daughter backed away when the punching started and didn’t know what to do.  The boy who did the punching/scratching has often been sent to the principal’s office but my daughter thinks he is silly and says funny things in class.

Wow.  All this just in time for No Name Calling Week.

Bullying Statistics

Some parents may feel it is an overreaction on my part to be concerned that the Lego City Police incident could be a precursor to bullying.  However, the statistics are alarming:  160,000 students per day skip school in fear of attack or bullying; out of 37 studied shootings, 66% of them were led by individuals who felt bullied; and 20% of high school students say they’ve considered suicide within the past twelve months, mentioning the triggers as bullying, teasing, and social rejection.  (These figures are borrowed from a library colleague; I didn’t ask for her sources).

The messages sent to my daughter and her classmates about this incident matter.  The time to address these issues is now, and the time to lay the foundation for the prevention of future bullying is now.

Don’t just read.  Discuss what you read.

My way of addressing issues typically involves books and I am familiar with the skepticism toward my approach:  can books really change the world?  Can reading really change lives?

Jenny Betz, Education Manager for GLSEN, suggested a different spin on these questions yesterday in “Battle Bullying with Books,” a webinar sponsored by Booklist.  Betz says that perhaps not the books themselves but the conversations around those books are what truly have the power to change lives.

One of my favorite aspects of teaching is listening to young people talk about issues of importance to them.  With civil discourse eroding before our eyes and disturbingly venomous speech flying around, it feels increasingly important to teach youth how to engage in respectful conversation with others.  I think using literature to open up dialogue is a great place to start.

Alone, the act of reading will not teach a child how to recognize and understand his emotions, will not create empathy.    But coupled with discussion, reading can help foster sensitivity and healthy relationships.

The thing to remember with discussion is that being “right” isn’t the point.  It’s more important to understanding what the other person is saying.  We adults are so eager to impart wisdom to young people that sometimes we talk too much.  We want young people to listen to us, but we often fail to reciprocate and truly listen to them.

All It Takes is One

In the past decade, innumerable titles have been published that deal with the subject of bullying for kids of all ages.  Last year author Mitali Perkins compiled a list of great titles for young adults (ages 12+).  For emergent readers (ages 5-8) the recent Benny and Penny in the Toy Breaker by Geoffrey Hayes is a good one and the upcoming The Three Bully Goats by Leslie Kimmelman seems promising.  James Howe, author of Bunnicula, published The Misfits in 2001  for middle grade readers.  Loosely based on his daughter’s experience at the hands of middle school bullies, The Misfits is the book that launched No Name Calling Week.

My personal favorite is One by Kathryn Otoshi, published in 2008 by KO Kids Books.   This profound picture book is accessible for very young children but has an elegant, Zen flair that makes it appealing for tweens and teens as well.  Every preschool and elementary school library needs a copy of this book, and it would make a terrific teacher gift as well.  (Coincidentally, I had given my daughter’s teacher a copy of One earlier this month.  She read it to the class this week and the kids’ response to it was very encouraging.)

Summary:   Generally, Blue feels happy and life is good.  Except when Red gets mad and takes it out on Blue.  Those are the times when Blue feels, well, blue.  And Red sometimes makes Orange, Purple, Green, and Yellow feel blue too.  Red is a bully but the other colors don’t quite know what to do about it until One comes along and teaches an important lesson—that everyone counts!

Counting by ones may seem like a slow process—one book, one teacher, one kid, one parent—but we never know which one moment can be a turning point.  I, for one, don’t want to allow a single opportunity to slip by.

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Speech Team Memories & Bitter Melon

The first place trophy that came as such a surprise. (No, it doesn't live on my bookshelf anymore. I dug it out of a box in the garage specifically so I could post this photo.)

Many of my best memories of high school come from experiences on speech team.  There are the crystal clear memories:  scanning elimination lists, late-night dinners at Denny’s, my shock at winning my first ever tournament, and an incident mid-round involving my best friend/duo interpretation partner and a pair of pantyhose.  There are also the fuzzier images:  the judge with the pig tie, the record store near UC Berkley, the always cold classrooms.

Some years later, when I was a teacher, I chaperoned the speech team on a weekend invitational tournament.  That experience was not nearly as fun but my respect and admiration for my coach and moderator increased exponentially (Kristi Balleweg and Eileen DeBruno are forever my heroes!).

All these memories came back to me in a rush when I read Bitter Melon by Cara Chow.  The main character, Frances Ching, attends an all-girls prep school and joins the speech team at her teacher’s encouragement.  A former “speechie” herself, the author does an excellent job describing how it feels to enter an unfamiliar classroom, select a seat, size up the judge, psych out the competition.  Chow gets the roller coaster of nervousness and confidence just right.   And the trophy!  The brassy, hollow treasure that means both everything and nothing.

But Bitter Melon offers up more than just a glimpse into the geeky world of high school speech and debate.  The novel is as good as any Amy Tan book for its exploration of mother/daughter relationships and themes of loyalty to self and family.

Because the story is set in the 1989-1990 school year, there’s no internet or texting for these teens.  Frances and her peers pass notes on paper and share corded wall phones with their parents.  They also use AquaNet and the President Bush they refer to isn’t W.  The only period detail Chow is missing is the DJ spinning “My Prerogative” or “Straight Up” at one of the dances.  This is a great read for present day teens or for a child of the 80s.  Looking forward to more from this debut author!

Bitter Melon 

By Cara Chow

EgmontUSA, 2010

Classification:  YA Fiction

Genre:  Realistic

Age Level:   12+

Subjects: Mothers & daughters, Chinese Americans, high school, academics, speech & debate


Fei Ting “Frances” Ching—hard-working, loyal daughter; a self-conscious loner

Gracie—a strict Chinese mom who wants her daughter to succeed in life

Theresa—Frances’ classmate, also Chinese

Nellie—Theresa’s mom and Gracie’s best friend

Ms. Taylor—a young, new teacher at Frances & Theresa’s school

Derek Collins—a boy Frances first meets at an SAT prep class who later turns out to be her biggest competition at speech tournaments

Summary:  Gracie Ching wants her only daughter, Frances, to attend UC Berkley and then go on to medical school.  Gracie works long hours at a low-paying job to afford tuition at a private girls school and she has Frances’ entire academic future planned out.  Now in her senior year, Frances has grown tired of her mother’s unrelenting pressure so when she accidentally enrolls in speech instead of AP Calculus, she doesn’t bother to change classes.  In fact, Frances kind of likes speech.  And her teacher, Ms. Taylor assures her she’s good at it.  At Ms. Taylor’s encouragement and with help on the homefront from fellow overachiever Theresa, Frances begins to find her own voice.  But will Gracie listen to what her daughter has to say?

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Someone Like You

By Sarah Dessen
Classification: YA Literature
Genre: Realistic fiction, chick lit
Age Level: 13+
Subjects: Friendship, mothers and daughters, self-discovery, teen pregnancy

Reader’s Annotation:  In her first serious relationship and with her best friend pregnant, Halley needs to grow up quickly.

Summary:  When Halley’s best friend Scarlett finds herself pregnant in the weeks following her boyfriend’s tragic death, Halley suddenly finds herself needing to be strong for the friend she used to lean on.  And Halley needs to learn her own strength quickly, since her shady boyfriend Macon is pressuring her to have sex with him and encouraging Halley in behavior that strains the already tense relationship she has with her mother.  Balancing family, school and her social life, Halley learns for the first time how tough it can be to reconcile who she is with who she wants to be.

Notes:  The emotional depth of the characters is what makes this simple story shine.  Halley is a very accessible and believable heroine.  Content to be aware of—underage drinking, drug use.
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Scrambled Eggs at Midnight

By Brad Berkley and Heather Harper
:  YA fiction
Genre: Realistic fiction
Age Level: 13+
Subjects: Family, friendship, first love

Reader’s Annotation:  Cal and Eliot share an instant connection that soon blossoms into love, but their time together is limited by Cal’s impending cross-country move.

Summary:  Cal is increasingly resentful of her mother’s constant moving.  The two traverse the country so Delores can work as a serving wench and jewelry artisan at Renaissance Faires, taking fifteen-year-old Cal along.  Meanwhile, Eliot longs for the normalcy of his family life, something they seem to have lost as his dad has become more and more engrossed in his business venture—helping overweight people lose weight and find God.  Cal and Eliot meet by chance…or is it destiny that brings them together?  What will happen to their newfound love when Delores is ready to move again?  Or when Eliot’s dad discovers his son is associating with people he doesn’t approve of?

Notes:  This book would make a great beach read for it is a lovely, sweet summer romance story with instantly likable characters.
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The Silver Cup

By Constance Leeds
: YA Literature
Genre: Historical fiction
Age Level: 12+
Subjects:  Crusades, persecution, Christians and Jews, religion, self-discovery

Reader’s Annotation:  In medieval Germany, superstition and prejudice abound, so when young Anna takes an orphaned Jewish girl into her home, she faces open hostility from her entire village.

Summary:  The Silver Cup is set in 1095 in a small village of no more than 60 families.  The village is half a day’s travel from the city of Worms, Germany.  Anna is a hard-working 16-year-old, filled with compassion that shines through her lovely singing voice.  Unfortunately Anna’s father Gunther, still grieving for the loss of his wife, is too often away from home to conduct trading to notice much about his daughter.  Anna’s Aunt Agnes has nothing kind to say about her late sister’s daughter.  To Agnes, Anna is a burden, neither a competent housekeeper nor a worthy match for any of the young men of the village.  So there has been little joy in Anna’s life when a horrific massacre takes place in Worms.  Anna, stunned by the slaughter, rescues Leah, a young Jewish girl, and takes her into her home.  As a result, Anna is completely ostracized by her family and the rest of the village, yet discovers her first friend in Leah.  Remarkably, as she heals from her ordeal, Leah brings laughter and hope to Anna and Gunther’s home, and they each find the strength to face an uncertain future.

Notes:  This historical novel, with its engaging characters, is a great read that illuminates a kind of prejudice that persists in our modern world.
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The Shadow in the North

By Philip Pullman
Classification: YA fiction
Genre: Mystery
Age Level: 13+
Subjects: Women’s rights, weapons, warfare, technology, spiritualism

Reader’s Annotation:  Sally Lockhart encounters unspeakable evil when she investigates the business ventures of Axel Bellmann.

Summary:  In 1878 London, Sally Lockhart is undeniably unconventional.  Self-employed as a financial consultant, Sally is devastated when a client loses her money after investing on Sally’s advice.  Turning her devastation to recover her client’s money, Sally enlists the help of friends Jim Taylor and Frederick Garland to investigate the enterprises of the elusive businessman Axel Bellmann.  As the friends dig deeper and deeper, encountering illusionists, spiritualists, fraud and murder, they uncover a sinister plan involving weapons technology and find themselves all in mortal danger.

Notes:  This novel is the second book of the Sally Lockhart trilogy.  Books one and three, respectively are The Ruby in the Smoke and The Tiger in the Well.  Sally is 22 years old in this book, so not technically a teen heroine (though she is a teen in Book 1), but it is a very provocative book, treating themes still relevant more than a century after the book’s setting.
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Pretty Little Liars

By Sara Shepard
Classification:  YA Fiction
Genre: Chick lit, mystery
Age Level: 14+
Subjects: Friendship, relationships, high school

Reader’s Annotation:  Hanna, Aria, Emily and Spencer all thought they had moved beyond the dark period in their past when their friend Alison disappeared, but out of the blue someone called “A” enters their lives and refuses to let the girls forget.

Summary:  Three years after Alison’s disappearance her four best friends, Hanna, Aria, Emily, and Spencer, have grown apart yet are still haunted by their memories of the daring stunts and dark secrets they shared with their vibrant friend.  Suddenly, as the girls begin their junior year of high school, they are each contacted by someone called “A.”  Through text messages, notes and emails, the girls find that their secrets have not vanished.  So just who is A?  What does A want from Hanna, Aria, Emily and Spencer?

Notes:  Book one of series.  Content to be aware of—underage drinking, drug use, sexuality.  This book reads like a prequel or a pilot episode, laying the foundation for the rest of the series, so many plot developments are not resolved by the end of this book.
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A Northern Light

By Jennifer Donnelly
Classification: YA fiction
Genre: Historical, mystery
Age Level: 13+
Subjects: Women’s rights, education, children in poverty

Reader’s Annotation:  With the real-life mystery of Grace Brown’s death as a backdrop, this novel tells the fictional story of Mattie Gokey in Uttica, NY in 1906.

Summary:  In upstate New York in 1906, Mattie Gokey is working hard to hold her family together after her mother’s death and her brother’s desertion.  In a constant struggle against poverty, illness and hopelessness, Mattie cares for her three younger sisters, helps her father run their small farm, and studies to earn her high school diploma.  Her greatest dream is to attend Barnard College where she has gained acceptance and a full scholarship, but only Mattie’s good friend Weaver and her teacher Miss Wilcox are excited for her.  Mattie’s father says no, her sisters do not want her to leave, and her intended, Royal, simply does not understand Mattie’s desire for further education.  Then a traveler, a young woman by the name of Grace Brown, dies mysteriously.  As Mattie tries to piece together an understanding of Grace’s life and death, she realizes the importance of her own story.

Notes:  Though Mattie narrates the novel, many women’s stories are presented, offering an unflinching account of the hardships faced by women at this point in history.  These struggles resonate with women today as well, making this novel a thought-provoking read.
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By P.C. Cast & Kristin Cast
: YA Fiction
Genre: Fantasy, vampires
Age Level: 14+
Subjects: High school, friendships, self-discovery, vampires

Reader’s Annotation:  Newly Marked vampire Zoey Redbird copes with friends and rivals in her new school, the House of Night.

Summary:  Zoey,16, is Marked by a vampire Tracker and leaves her home and high school to attend the House of Night, a boarding school for fledgling vampires undergoing the Change from human to adult vampire.  Once at the House of Night, Zoey finds both unfortunate similarities and startling differences between her new school and her old:  a Queen Bee named Aphrodite and her sycophants, hot guys like drama buff Erik, classes in fencing and vampire sociology.  With the help of new friends, Zoey discovers her powers—gifts from the vampire goddess Nyx—and struggles to follow her grandmother’s advice to balance her unique abilities with responsible behavior.

Notes:  Book one of a series.  This series is engaging even for those readers who are not deeply interested in vampires.  Content to be aware of—language, sexuality
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