So...this book requires patience. Understand that this is a book about a boy whose concept of reality is slowly disintegrating into a prismatic light-show. He is plunging down the rabbit hole and you will go there with him.
There are two stories being told in Challenger Deep- the story of the voyage into the Marianas Trench and the story of a 15 year old boy's voyage into his own personal trench.
Eventually, the stories will collide.
If you embark on this journey with the boy, Caden Bosch, understand that the voyage is long and the way is not always clear. However, the story is worth the travel.
Once you wrap your mind around what is truly happening in this novel, you will appreciate the honest, caring, and accepting way it deals with the issues it covers. Normalizing something that affects millions of people around the world, Challenger Deep is a necessary novel.
4 out of 5 stars
Review by Mrs. Sanborn
Scythe, by Neal Shusterman, is a difficult book to place in a genre. It is Utopian, partially, but has a nasty dystopian streak running through it. This unique vision of the world's future depicts a humanity that has conquered disease, crime, and ultimately, death. There is no government but, instead, a beneficent, cognizant evolution of the internet called the "Thunderhead" makes sure that society has all of its needs met. The only problem is that, having conquered death, there would be no fail safe in place to handle overpopulation.
This is why the first immortal humans created the Scythedom.
Scythes are above the law and not subject to the power of the "Thunderhead." It is their duty to "glean" (which is a sugar-coated term for "kill") a certain number of people per year to keep the population down. Scythes are supposed to be incredibly moral, compassionate, and just. They are supposed to "glean" in the most humane way possible. However, without the "Thunderhead" keeping the Scythes in line, guiding them to make the right decisions, human nature is able take its normal course. There is corruption in the Scythedom. For some Scythes, "Gleaning" has become sport and a way to lord power over others.
The protagonists of this story are two high school kids who have been selected to be apprentices to a well-known Scythe. Ultimately, only one of them will be selected to serve as a Scythe, and the other one, they are told, will return to his/her normal life. However, political machinations infect what should be an amicable competition. The apprentices, Citra and Rowan, see that there are many dark secrets within the Scythedom. They have to choose between succumbing to the corruption or rebelling against it.
Shusterman has imagined an interesting take on the world's future. While I do see some holes in the concept, overall it works.
So far, the series is fine for ages 11+- however, be warned that it is gory and violent.
4 out of 5 stars
Review by Mrs. Sanborn
Written in poetic form, Brown Girl Dreaming is the memoir of Jacqueline Woodson, a writer whose childhood experiences were of two worlds- Greenville, SC and Brooklyn, NY.
Jacqueline was born during America's Civil Rights movement. As an African American girl with both a southern and northern parent, she experienced how geography played a markedly strong role in the treatment of people of color.
The anger and frustration she felt towards the inexcusable injustices happening around her, and the pride she felt towards the energy of the civil rights revolution were fuel for the words she had bubbling inside of her.
Far from the "smartest" child in her family, Jacqueline grew up doubting herself even when the words were dancing in her brain and spilling out of her pencil. Yet, with the encouragement of a few intuitive teachers, and the deep love from a tightly connected family, Jacqueline found a way to take her "dreams" and turn them into beautiful stories.
Brown Girl Dreaming is a lovely, emotive, and powerful true story of the life of an American child during the 1960 and 1970s. The audio book version is particularly poignant because it is read by Woodson herself.
Winner of the Newbery and other prestigious awards, this memoir is a must have in every middle school collection.
5 stars for ages 10+
Review written by Mrs. Sanborn
A Silverback Gorilla is a GREAT Ape- a proud protector of his troop- a majestic creature. They belong in the wild- guarding the nests of their family- fathering their offspring- living with the natural world.
Ivan is a Silverback Gorilla who was stolen from his natural habitat to serve as an attraction in a mall. He was raised by humans but, although his memory is not as absolute as an elephants, he remembers the joy that he was taken from and the sorrows he has faced.
Ivan is also an artist. Give him any medium- mud, crayons, paint, magic markers- and he will draw his world for you.
Ivan has made the best of his captivity. He has true friends in a dog, elephant, and little girl.
It is only when he loses one of these friends that he begins to see his "domain" for what it really is- a cage.
Ivan has made a promise so nearly impossible that even a Silverback might not be able to keep it. But Ivan is more that just a Silverback. He is an artist.
Katherine Applegate has fictionalized the true account of an actual gorilla named Ivan, giving him a story to tell. Although this is a tale told from the perspective of animals- their "humanity" is just as valid as our own.
5 Stars for all ages
Review by Mrs. Sanborn
Author is not a powerful enough word to describe Pam Muñoz Ryan. Master Storyteller, Literary Sorceress, or Word Mage would be more appropriate. Echo is not just a book- it is an epic work of genius.
Historical Fiction and Faerie-Tale blend together in this gorgeous story of how one harmonica transforms and connects the lives of its owners.
Once upon a time, in a world that is somewhere else, a wicked king decides that his wife's first child must be male, to secure the lineage to the throne. When she gives birth to a girl, the king tells her the child died at birth. Three times this happens until, finally, her 4th pregnancy produces a boy.
The Queen's midwife has been ordered to discard the female newborns in the forest to be devoured by animals but, being a kind soul, she cannot. Instead, she asks a nearby witch to raise the girls as her own.
The girls grow to be hard working, kind, and very musically talented. In time, the witch grows very possessive of the girls, treating them as slaves, and eventually enchanting them to never be able to leave her.
However, every evil spell has a counterspell!
If the three hidden princesses could find a way to save the lives of others through their music, they could be freed from the wicked spell. But...how can they do this when they can never leave?
When a lost German boy named Otto, accidentally stumbles into their bewitched prison with a harmonica, the girls realize exactly how to send their musical spirit out into the world.
The harmonica begins its journey in Germany, right as Hitler comes to power. The insane prejudices of the Nazi party condemn anyone with what could be considered a "defect" and also place strict rules upon art and music. Friedrich, a German boy with a wine-stain birthmark on half of his face, falls under Nazi scrutiny along with his outspoken father. Their family is in danger of being separated and mistreated by the Nazis. To survive, they must devise a desperate and dangerous plan. The harmonica gives Friedrich courage in the face of a world gone mad.
The harmonica then finds its way to depression-era America- Pennsylvania, to be precise. There it falls into the hands of Mike Flannery, a recent orphan. Mike and his brother Frankie have been brought to a orphanage by their dying grandmother, who had been raising them since their parents died. She chooses this orphanage because it has a piano, and music is central to their family. She tells the boys that the right person will come along for them. Someone does come along, but her motives are questionable, and the boys aren't sure if life will be better or worse. They too, have to come up with a plan to secure their future. The harmonica may just provide their only way out of a desperate situation.
Fast-forward to WWII and the harmonica is now in California. Ivy Lopez, a 5th grade Mexican-American girl, has been given the harmonica by her teacher, and falls in love with the music. With her brother serving in the Army, and her family running the farm of a Japanese family who has been forced into an internment camp, the harmonica brings her hope in a time of racism and fear. Eventually, the harmonica does far more than that.
In the end, all the lives that the harmonica has touched, are united in some way. Their fates are interwoven. Can all of the hope and salvation brought about by the harmonica be a strong enough magic to free the three imprisoned sisters? Can the Echo of their musical spirit save them? Will the harmonica complete its final task- to save a life?
The audio-book version of Echo is stunning. Each song is performed by a professional musician, bringing strong emotion to the narrative. Each child's story (Otto, Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy) is read by a different actor in the accent appropriate to the child's voice. The reading is emotive and captivating.
Echo can be enjoyed by readers of any age. However, it is probably best for strong readers who do not tire easily when reading long books. This is a perfect recommendation for a strong reader ages 11 and up.
5 out of 5 stars
Review by Mrs. Sanborn
Oh no she didn't! ...oh, yes, she did.
Cassandra Clare is known for star-crossed love-affairs that have the entire universe working against them and this 2nd installment of the Dark Artifices series does not veer from that formula. Clare is also known for scenes that punch the reader right in the feels- taking the plot in a direction that is emotionally devastating. Cassandra Clare does not write easy, feel-good stories with minimal conflict, and minimal sorrow. She goes for it. She takes that leap. She does not rest until you cry!
The Lord of Shadows continues the story of the Blackthorn children and their lives in the wake of betrayal, and loss. For their safety, the family has to relocate to the London Institute, so much of the story takes place there (Yay!). This 2nd book in the series gives us a chaotic ride from danger to danger. Malcolm Fade is gone. Anbabel, the Lady Midnight, has been resurrected. The Black Volume is coveted by the Unseelie King. Julian and Emma are doomed by a curse that threatens their very sanity. The Cohort wants to spread bigotry against Downworlders similar to that of Hitler's Germany. The Blackthorn Family is being hunted. Things are NOT going well.
Then, just when things are coming to a head, Cassandra Clare brings down the hand of destiny and leaves us with a tragic, heart-wrenching, and infuriating ending (but she is not done yet!).
Once, I emailed Cassandra Clare and asked why she always makes it so hard for our protagonists to be happy. She replied that a good story has conflicts. Well, this certainly has that.
If you are a fan of the Shadowhunter books, you MUST read these. If you have never read any of the Shadowhunter books, read The Mortal Instruments series, then the Infernal Devices series and then start the Dark Artifices series. They make for delicious reading.
4 out of 5 Stars
Ages 13+ for content.
Review by Mrs. Sanborn
So many Americans take for granted the food in our pantries, the electricity running through our homes, clean water, and relative safety. More than that, we take for granted that parents want these things for their children. To go without these things, in America, one would think, would be the result of desperation, deep poverty, and a complete lack of advanced education. Certainly no one would choose to live this way, if they had a way out...would they?
The Glass Castle is a memoir about a selfishness so intense that two educated adults delude themselves into thinking that their gross neglect of their 4 children is actually some kind of liberated, free-spirited lifestyle. Rex and Rose Mary Walls are two of the most self-indulgent, self-centered, self-deluding, and negligent parents I have ever read about. Hiding behind the mask of "sticking it to the system" and "living off the grid," these parents placed their children in mortal danger and destitution, despite having the means to do otherwise.
Rex Walls was a genius, a con artist, a gambler, and an alcoholic. Rose Mary Walls was an artist who only wanted children in order to have people to love her. She felt NO compulsion to actually take care of them. She'd rather paint and write novels and let them fend for themselves.
Rose Mary inherited enough from her parents to give her children a wonderful life, but through mismanagement, addiction, and apathy she and her alcoholic husband pilfered it away. As a result of financial and physical neglect, Rex and Rose Mary's children suffered burns, broken bones, starvation, sexual molestation, filth, and ridicule. The only things Rex and Rose Mary did give their children was a strong appreciation of learning, and a twisted sort of love.
This memoir was gorgeously written and captivating. It makes one feel so many things- disgust, fear, hope, and resignation. The Glass Castle demonstrates how children can love their parents through the worst but do not come out unscathed. Some may escape and turn their destiny around, while others succumb to pain. This is a story worth reading.
5 out of 5 stars
Ages 13+ for content.
Review by Mrs. Sanborn
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Wonder by R.J. Palacio should be required reading for every student the summer before they begin middle school. All children approaching the threshold between childhood and adolescence can relate to the emotions, fears, and hopes in this story of growing up and growing stronger.
Wonder teaches us that real friendship is something that is born not only from mutual interests, and similar values, but from the desire to raise each other up when the world tries to bring us down.
August Pullman is a 10-year-old boy who lives in Manhattan. He is obsessed with Star Wars, loves his dog, and has a deeply loving family. He is an ordinary boy in almost every way…except for the way that he isn’t.
August (Auggie) has never gone to a regular school. This is because he spent much of his childhood in and out of hospitals undergoing and recovering from Cranial-facial surgeries.
Auggie, in a one-in-4-million-chance occurrence, was born with Mandibulofacial Dysostosis and a Cleft Palette- which means his face doesn’t have all the bones necessary to keep it in the shape people are used to. His eyes are asymmetrically placed and very low on his face; his cheeks are sunken in; his mouth cannot turn up on the sides; and he does not have fully formed ears. Unlike the almost adorable depiction of August Pullman that Hollywood has decided to use in the upcoming movie version of Wonder, Auggie looks markedly different than most children, and for this he has been surreptitiously stared and gawked at all his life.
August’s parents love their son immensely and want him to have the most normal life he possibly can, despite his abnormal appearance. So, they ask Auggie if he would be interested, now that he doesn’t need as many surgeries, in entering Beecher Prep Middle School in the fall.
At first, August is adamantly opposed to this idea- fearing the ridicule and attention- but he eventually relents.
Auggie’s first year in Middle School contains everything he'd hoped and feared: ridicule, cruelty, conflict, friends, loyalty, fun. Auggie has to face, for the first time, the real world, without the protection of his family to shield him from the hurt. He is severely ostracized, at first, but, slowly, the charm and goodness that is August Pullman envelops the school.
Wonder is a tale of triumph. August’s story teaches us that who we are in word and deed will reveal more of our truth than ever the reflection in the mirror. It also shows us that we can evolve and choose the right path, even when we’ve strayed from it for a while. Wonder sheds light on both the worst and best of human nature and reminds us that it is our choices that make us who we are.
Every middle school student should have to read this novel as part of their character education, and to enjoy the story of a boy who learns to face the world while teaching the world that he is more than his face.
by Mrs. Sanborn
Watership Down by Richard Adams My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Watership Down was originally published in 1972 by British author, Richard Adams. You must take this publication date into account when you read this book- although it does not excuse its issues.
Watership Down is a long-winded story that, if it had been published today, would probably have been divided up and made into a series. It is the story of a group of rabbits who bravely face the dangers and challenges of the wild world in order to eke out a life for themselves that they can all feel proud of.
It begins with a clairvoyant rabbit who sees an impending disaster for his warren and convinces his brother, a natural leader, that they must flee. That flight takes the two brothers, and a handful of other open-minded rabbits, on an adventure of epic proportions.
This book is a wonderful tale of bravery, faith, friendship, determination, and morality. There is only one major flaw with the novel and that is that it can be, at times, infuriatingly sexist.
The female rabbits in this story are not very well-developed characters. The bucks (male rabbits) view them as a commodity to the warren and a means of perpetuating the lineage. The females are meant to dig warrens, produce litters, and care for the young. The bucks aren't overtly dominating over the females- they just don't really consider them as equals. Though the females are consistently brave enough to challenge fascism and rally against oppression in the story-they get little credit for it.
The irony of this sexism is that Adams wrote this story for his daughters. It was their bedtime story, their car ride story, their quality time with dad story. They are the ones who convinced Adams to write the story down and publish it. So, why does Adams give the bucks such well-developed personalities while the does play such a secondary role in the story? It is true the bucks risk their lives to bring the does into the warren- but it is only so that they may mate, have litters, and have females to dig more runs in the burrow. The female characters are utilitarian in this story and it is a major flaw.
I give Watership Down 4 stars because it is a beautifully written adventure story that can be appreciated by all ages. I cannot give the novel 5 stars because the understated role of the female characters detracts from the beauty and power of the story. The irony of this sexism is that Adams wrote this story for his daughters. It was their bedtime story, their car ride story, their quality time with dad story. They are the ones who convinced Adams to write the story down and publish it. So, why does Adams give the bucks such well-developed personalities while the does play such a secondary role in the story? It is true the bucks risk their lives to bring the does into the warren- but it is only so that they may mate, have litters, and have females to dig more runs in the burrow. The female characters are utilitarian in this story and it is a major flaw.
I give Watership Down 4 stars because it is a beautifully written adventure story that can be appreciated by all ages. I cannot give the novel 5 stars because the understated role of the female characters detracts from the beauty and power of the story. by Mrs. Sanborn
The Inquisitor's Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Reading this book was a joyful, cleansing experience. As we currently live in a time of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, hate-speech, that is clogging our governmental system and society, reading The Inquisitor's Tale was a refreshing reminder that love, acceptance, and kindness are the real reasons we exist.
Set in the 1200s, this is the story of three children (and a dog) from completely different races, cultures, and experiences. Jeanne is a Christian Peasant, William is a biracial oblate monk (orphan given to a monastery), and Jacob is a Jew. Each of them has a quality that makes them easily despised in medieval times: Jeanne, for her poverty, William, for his mother's Muslim blood, and Jacob, for refusing to believe in the divinity of Christ. Yet, by the grace of the Judeo-Christian God, they each have been given a miraculous gift and can perform miracles. This is both their blessing and curse as they live in a time of superstitious ignorance.
The story begins in a medieval inn with a group of people drinking ale and relating to the narrator the various origin stories of the three children, and their dog. They tell that the group is being hunted by King Louis the 9th for acts of Heresy. The stories they tell convince some that the children (and dog) are Saints, while others condemn them as devils for being "magical." All, however, are completely engrossed in the tale and want to hear more.
The children are set on their path because they have all been turned out of their homes for various reasons. Jeanne's town fears she may be a witch. William is too outspoken and strong to obey his closed-minded superiors in the monastery. Jacob is burned out of his village. Through Providence, the children meet, and decide to travel together.
Because of their divine gifts, every place that is touched by the children experiences some kind of miracle. Jeanne has visions of the future, William possesses super-human strength, and Jacob can heal mortal wounds. Every time their lives are in peril, the holy power of their goodness somehow transforms their adversaries into better people.
Eventually, their wandering becomes a quest to protect the knowledge and wisdom of the Jews, which is what brings the wrath of Louis the 9th upon them.
This is a tale of the Judeo-Christian God's love for His people and the many misinterpretations of how that love is expressed. It is a tale of misguided piety, and the hubris of believing that people have the right to judge others in their God's name. But mostly, this is a story of three wonderful children (and their dog) who bring hope, friendship, and meaning to the lives of many through their unique connection to their God.
Highly recommended to ages 12+ because of content. Contains an annotated list of sources, and an explanation for the historical characters and events that inspired this work of fiction.
by Mrs. Sanborn
The Bolles Middle School Library by Jaime Ann Sanborn, MLIS, SLMS is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at www.bollesmiddlelibrary.org.