Books for Kids
On the Edge
Book Reviewed: Alexie, Sherman. (2007). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Summary: Arnold Spirit, or Junior, is a fourteen-year-old boy who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation. His best friend is another Indian named Rowdy, who has a cruel streak. One day Arnold is encouraged to do something with his life by a teacher and he enrolls in the nearby all-white, affluent high school. Getting to school isn’t easy, though, nor is getting back home after school is out, but Arnold seems to manage. He loves to draw cartoons and also discovers he is a decent basketball player. Eventually he has to play against the Indian team he grew up with, including his former best friend Rowdy, who hasn’t forgiven him for switching schools. Junior’s droll sense of humor serves him well as he tries to discover who he really is and where he belongs in the world.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There is some swearing in this book so be forewarned. There are also numerous drawings which kids may find attractive and increase the likelihood they will read the book. Once they begin reading, it will be difficult for them to place the book down, because the story of the narrator is quite engaging and funny.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This story will help dispel kids’ stereotypes of what life is like on Indian Reservations, such as that all Indians are drunks and poor. While the book certainly does portray some Indians as being drunk and poor, it also depicts some Indians with drive and the wherewithal to make their life better.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Explain how the relationships between Junior and Rowdy changes from the beginning to the end of the book. Use examples from the story.
  • Find three examples of how Junior uses humor to survive the chaos surrounding his life. How does the use of humor make the storyline more complete?
  • List the obstacles against Junior being successful in life. Could you overcome the obstacles Junior has?
  • Predict the rest of Junior’s life. What will he do for a living? Where will he live? What will he believe? What will his personality be like?
  • Compare Junior’s story with that of his sister, Mary Runs Away. How are they different? How are they the same?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is one of those books which either makes you cry or laugh—all on the same page. This is also a solid story about a kid rising above the circumstances surrounding his life and trying to make something good happen. Younger middle school kids should perhaps not read this book. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Anderson, Laurie Halse. (1999). Speak. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Summary: Melinda Sordino is a high school freshman who can’t understand why nobody wants to sit by her. The kids treat her as though she has the plague. Then a confident alerts her to the fact that because she called the cops and busted up the end-of-the-summer party, nobody wants anything to do with her. Suddenly it all makes sense, but Melinda can’t tell anybody what really happened at the summer party—how one of the most popular boys in the school raped her. Unfortunately, the boy still goes to school. Fortunately, Melinda finds some solace with her art projects and a very compassionate art instructor. But then Melinda finds herself in another situation involving the same boy. Is her nightmare going to start all over again? Will she find her voice to speak out and stand for her rights as a human being?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There is a rape scene in this novel but it is not covered in graphic detail. There is a scene involving partying high school kids but again, most of the details are left to the imagination. This book should not be read by younger middle school kids.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This story has become very famous over the years because it discusses the aftermath of rape and how it may trouble young girls for a long time and affect their relationships with other kids. The storyline isn’t preachy or formulaic and Melinda’s struggle to tell the world about what happened and the inherent conflict in the embarrassment of what occurred is a very real problem for some young girls.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Why doesn’t Melinda tell everyone what happened when she is first raped?
  • The high school kids are not happy with Melinda because she called the cops and they ended the party. And yet, nobody thinks to ask Melinda as to why she called the cops. Is this common for kids to not ask for details or reasons? Why or why not?
  • What is different the second time when the boy attempts to rape Melinda. How has Melinda changed?
  • Explain why the title of this book is called “speak.” What other titles could this book have had?
  • Why is art a soothing outlet for Melinda? What does she get from art that she doesn’t get from the other subjects?

Overall evaluation of this book: A very good book about a sometimes taboo topic. Younger middle school kids should not read this book. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Asher, Jay. (2007). Thirteen Reasons Why. New York: Razor Bill.

Summary: Clay Jensen was infatuated with Hannah Baker who unexpectedly committed suicide. Now, two weeks later, he finds himself holding a box of cassette tapes which Hannah mailed before her death. Clay is not the first person to receive the box of cassette tapes and nor will he be the last individual to hold the box. There is a list of people who Hannah has instructed to listen to the tapes and then pass them on to the next name on the list. Clay takes the cassette player from his father’s garage and spends the night listening to the tapes. What he hears from the voice of the dead girl is horrifying and terrifying as Hannah relates the incidents and reasons that led up to her deciding to take her own life. And it involves a lot of people and situations—some of which seem mild and others which appear to be cruel. What will Clay discover about himself when he listens to the tapes? Why has Hannah included him on the list of recipients?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a very famous book and is one of the few books about suicide which I would recommend to you for consideration as a book for middle school child to read. While there are references to parties and high school activities, it doesn’t cross the line as to where it becomes unreadable for most middle school kids.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This novel is very strong about the importance of paying attention to all of your classmates, especially those who appear to be on the fringes of the normal peer groups. It also carries a nice message about how little things can add up, either in helping someone feel a part of the group or feel excluded and unwanted. While Hannah does not find a solution among the living, the book ends on a hopeful note with Clay deciding to take an interest in a reclusive girl named Skye.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Why did the author choose cassette tapes as the manner in which Hannah Baker tells her story? Do they add or detract from the story? Why?
  • What was Hannah’s motive in making the tapes before she committed suicide? What did she hope would happen as a result of mailing out the tapes? Give specific examples from the story to back your claim.
  • Clay Jensen isn’t a particularly bad individual, one who tormented and teased Hannah. Why does the author choose to tell part of the story through his eyes?
  • How would you have ended the story? How else could the story have ended?
  • What are the warning signs that one of your classmates may be thinking about committing suicide? If you don’t know—find out.

Overall evaluation of this book: An excellent book about suicide and what kids can to help other kids feel as though they belong. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Green, John. (2012). The Fault in our Stars. New York: Dutton Books.

Summary: Hazel Lancaster is a sixteen-year-old girl who is dying of stage IV thyroid cancer. The cancer has affected her so much that she needs to carry around an oxygen canister wherever she goes. At a weekly support group session, she meets the enigmatic August Waters, a boy her same age who has lost a leg to bone cancer. They make an incredible pair and soon find they have much in common and begin to spend time with one another. But there’s a problem; Hazel has read a book about cancer called An Imperial Affliction and wants to know what happened to the characters at the end of the story. The problem is the author lives in Amsterdam. August arranges for them to fly to Amsterdam and meet the eccentric author but the author isn’t initially what she thought he would be. They return to the United States and try to find meaning in the apparent rantings and ravings of the odd author. Will Hazel find meaning in her oncoming death? And what about August? Is his cancer really in remission?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is a heartbreaking story about two young adults and the relationship between them, on the journey they take together, as they eventually succumb to cancer. There are some emotionally tough scenes in the novel but the humor of the main characters make even lugging around an oxygen tank seem as commonplace as carrying around a backpack. There is a scene which strongly suggests sex occurs between Hazel and August but it is covered with some discretion. If someone in your family has died of cancer, or is dying of cancer, some discussion with your child is an essential. This book should not be read by younger middle school kids.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is not a “pity-me-I-have-cancer” book but rather an “I-am-alive” story and “let’s-get-living.” This is also a quirky, funny, and yet honest look at what it is like to have cancer.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Why is this book titled, “The Fault in our Stars?” Use examples from the book to support your answer.
  • What is the role of the individual who wrote An Imperial Affliction?
  • How would this story have been different if one or both of the main characters had not died in the end?
  • Find three examples from the book and explain how the use of humor makes this story appear more real and believable.
  • How would this story be different if it had been told from Augustus’ point of view?

Overall evaluation of this book: A very good book for older middle school kids, about adolescents who have terminal cancer. Four stars because it’s not suitable for younger kids. ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Harrington, Hannah. (2012). Speechless. Ontario, Canada: Harlequin Enterprises Limited.

Summary: Chelsea is a very popular girl in her school. This all changes when she stumbles upon two male classmates at a party who are making out with one another. She blurts her stunning discovery out to a large group of people and several of them take it upon themselves to beat up one of the boys so badly that they need to be taken to the hospital. Chelsea now has a problem; does she tell on the classmates who beat up the gay teenager or does she keep her mouth shut and remain popular with her classmates? In the end, Chelsea ultimately decides to keep her mouth shut and vows to bite her lip. She stops talking with everyone. As a result, she loses her old friends—who continually torment and bully her—and gains some new friends—who are fun-loving and much nicer people. Along the way, she develops an attraction to one of her new male friends, Noah, and a simmering love story begins. But will her past catch up with her and will all of her old friends allow her to be free of them?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This story contains references to gay lovers—but nothing is explicit. There are also sexual and drug references. The main character is not a very likeable character in the beginning of the novel, but slowly becomes more likeable—but not completely—as the story line progresses. Younger middle school kids should not be reading this book.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Harrington does weave a compelling story line about friendship and the line which exists between saying something and keeping your mouth shut. This will resonate with middle school kids because most of them can’t keep a secret and will blurt out things without thinking about the consequences of the information they are relaying. There is a moral in this book about this type of behavior.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What is gossip? Does any gossip appear in this story?
  • If you learned something which might hurt someone if the information became public, would you be able to keep it private? (Note: Don’t just say, “yes.” Think hard about whether you currently have been able to keep secrets.)
  • Chelsea decides to punish herself by not talking. Is this a realistic strategy? What are some other options she may have?
  • How does Chelsea change from the beginning of the novel to the end of the novel. Give three examples from the book to defend your response.
  • Think of a different ending to the book. How would you write the ending?

Overall evaluation of this book: A realistic book about the impact of gossip coming from loose lips. Because of the content, his book is not suitable for most middle school kids. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Kerr, M.E. (1994). Deliver Us from Evie. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Summary: This story is told from the point of view of Parr Burrman, a high school junior who lives on a small family farm in rural Missouri. Parr has an older sister, Evie, who is one of the main focuses in this novel. (The other primary focus is Parr’s feelings towards getting a girlfriend and getting away from the farm.) In the rural landscape, many people are convinced that Evie will marry a young man named Cord, settle down and run the family farm. Parr knows better because he knows Evie is a lesbian who, though she likes hard work, dresses like a man and has no intention of having a traditional life as a farmer’s wife. Events start to spin out of control when a young girl named Patsy, the daughter of the wealthy man who holds the mortgage on the Burrman farm, returns from private boarding school and begins spending lots of time with Evie. Eventually, a prank backfires and Evie leaves the area, with suggestions that Patsy is with her and they are now partners. Parr, who is on good terms with Evie, is left on the family farm to contemplate what everything means.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This is an older book which has been available for a some time. The author, M.E. Kerr, was a prolific author for young adolescents during the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Because of its age, your child may be reluctant to read this book. The story line is told from the point of view of the younger brother, so there won’t be any great insight from the point of view of the one who is gay. The story also focuses heavily on life on the family farm, so your child may or may not resonate with the setting.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This story will appeal to kids for same reasons it won’t be of any interest to kids. The setting is rural. Farming is a constant topic. Evie, it can be argued, it a stereotypical lesbian. The story is told not from Evie’s point of view but from her younger brother’s. Still, the story line has value and will be of interest to some middle school kids.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Why did the author tell this story from the setting of a small Missouri farm?
  • How would the story have been different if the setting had been in a large, cosmopolitan city? Give three examples of how the story would have been different. Give three examples of how the story would have been similar.
  • This book was published in 1994. What parts of the story would be the same if the story had been published today? What parts of the story would be different if the story had been published today?
  • The story is told from Evie’s younger brother’s point of view. Tell the story, from start to finish, from Evie’s point of view. How does the story change when told from Evie’s point of view?

Overall evaluation of this book: A good story but one which will resonate with a smaller crowd of today’s middle kids. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: McCormick, Patricia. (2006). Sold. New York: Hyperion Books for Children.

Summary: Lakshmi is a thirteen-year-old girl who lives in modern day Nepal. Her family is poor and her stepfather is a worthless drunk and gambler who eventually sells Lakshmi to a woman who resells Lakshmi to the owner of a brothel in Calcutta, India. Lakshmi is unaware of her plight at first—she imagines she is going to work as a maid and will send back money so her mother can feed the family and pay for a new tin roof—but eventually realizes she has been tricked. At first Lakshmi refuses to sleep with paying customers but she is beaten, starved, and drugged. Eventually, to stay alive, she relents and dreams of being able to pay off her debts and leave the “Happiness House.” But will Mumtaz, the cruel owner of the brothel, ever allow her to leave? And what does the American want with Lakshmi?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: There are several scenes in which it is clear Lakshmi is having sex with a paying customer but the details of the scene are left out. There are also scenes involving her being beaten and starved but, again, many of the details are left to the reader’s imagination. This is the rare book for older middle schoolers about a very real problem in which the author manages to highlight the issues without being overly gruesome and revolting.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This is a good pick for older middle school kids—think eighth and ninth graders here—about a very real modern-day problem in which adolescent girls are bought and sold like cattle. The first person narration and Spartan prose makes the story line believable and up tempo. It will be difficult for kids to not like Lakshmi and root for her eventual escape from a life of forced prostitution. Unfortunately, many other real life girls are not as fortunate as the fictional character of Lakshmi.

Discussion points with kids:

  • How does Lakshmi change from the beginning of the story to the end of the story?
  • Select five words to describe Lakshmi’s mother and five words to describe Lakshmi’s stepfather.
  • Where in the world is the selling of young girls going on today? Do some research to find out.
  • What conditions in a country need to exist in order for the events in the book to be true?
  • Explain to someone two alternative endings for the book. How else might this story have ended?
  • Evaluate the men in this story. What are they like? Are they all the same? How are they the same or different?

Overall evaluation of this book: This is an excellent book about a topic which can be difficult for middle schoolers to comprehend. Adults will need to discuss this book with any middle schoolers who reads the book. Keep this book in the hands of older middle schoolers and out of younger hands. Five Stars ★★★★★

Book Reviewed: Myracle, Lauren. (2003). Kissing Kate. New York: Dutton Books.

Summary: Lissa is a sixteen-year-old girl who one night, along with her best friend Kate who was drunk, kissed one another in something that was more than a light touch on the cheek. Since then, Kate has ignored Lissa, who can’t get the image or thought of the night they kissed out of her mind. The story is told from Lissa’s point of view and tells of her emotional journey attempting to get her best friend to speak with her again and coming to the realization that perhaps she really is a lesbian. In the end, another girl, named Ariel, helps Lissa come to the realization that she should accept who she is and understand that her friendship with Kate—who appears to be straight—will not return to what it once was.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This story contains some images and references which may not be appropriate for younger middle school children. The references are not explicit, but I’d only consider giving this book to older middle school kids—eighth or ninth graders.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This story is told from the point of view of the girl who is conflicted as to whether or not she is a lesbian and whether or not Kate, her best friend, reciprocates her feelings. As a result, there is a level of emotional closeness found in this story which is lacking in other gay/lesbian young adult literature. The storyline includes a few sections on dreams and their interpretations—which I found hokey—but some middle school kids may enjoy them.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Lissa lives with her uncle because her parents were killed in a car accident when she was young. How would the story be the same or different if her parents were alive?
  • Tell the story from Kate’s point of view. What would she say?
  • What is Ariel’s role in the story? How does her role change from the beginning of the story to the end of the story?
  • Lissa’s dreams are part of the story. Find three examples of imagery in Lissa’s dreams. (If you don’t know what imagery is, do some research to find out what it is.)

Overall evaluation of this book: A good story about a young girl trying to figure out who she is and the meaning of the true value of friendship. Four Stars ★★★★

Book Reviewed: Trueman, Terry. (2007). 7 Days at the Hot Corner. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Summary: Scott is a high school senior who is the starting third basement for the Thompson varsity baseball team. He thrives on baseball and the adoration he receives from other students—especially girls—in the school. Seven days before the citywide baseball tournament is set to begin, Scott learns that his best friend Travis is gay. Scott panics because during a batting practice drill, Scott got some of Travis’ blood on his hands. Now he is worried that he has contracted AIDS. He goes to a local clinic to get tested for the disease. While he waits to find the results—the longest seven days of his life—Scott must learn to accept his friend for who he is and come to grips with his own fears.

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This book is told from the point of view of a straight high school male student who loves the sport of baseball. Compared to many other books about gay teens, this novel is not graphic in terms of language or the sexuality issue. Consequently, the value of this book may be more appropriate to middle school kids than some other book selections. I don’t know that I would enthusiastically recommend this book to younger middle school child.

Why middle school kids should read this book: This book may be especially useful if the reader is a sport-loving kid who has a friend he or she knows or believes is gay. In addition to the gay teen issue, the topic of baseball dominates this novel, so if the reader isn’t a rabid baseball fan, they may not find the background story very compelling. Still, it’s not a bad story and does focus on the friendship between two boys and the strain caused by the knowledge that one of them is gay. There isn’t necessarily a moral to the story, so don’t look hard for one.

Discussion points with kids:

  • What is the truth about how AIDS is spread? Could Scott have really contacted AIDS from Travis?
  • Consider the story from Travis’ point of view. How would the story have been different if it had been told from his point of view?
  • Would the story have been the same if Scott had been an accomplished musician in the high school band or choir? Why or why not? Defend your answer with three examples from the book, and how the story would have changed or been the same.
  • During the story, Scott’s high school history teacher talks about how the Nazi Germans in World War II persecuted anyone they didn’t like or who didn’t measure up to their standards. Why did the author include this part into 7 Days at the Hot Corner?

Overall evaluation of this book: A story which will be of limited interest to most middle school kids. Boys interested in sports will probably like this novel the most. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Vizzini, Ned. (2006). It’s Kind of a Funny Story. New York: Hyperion Paperbacks.

Summary: Craig Gilner studies very hard to get into New York City’s Executive Pre-Professional High School. He aces the test and finds himself enrolled in the school of his dreams. Unfortunately, Craig is no longer exceptional but ordinary in his new school which is filled with kids who are just as smart—or smarter—than he is. Craig becomes depressed. He is placed on medication for the depression but eventually stops and contemplates suicide. A call to a suicide hotline eventually places Craig into a local hospital for treatment. Unfortunately, the juvenile treatment area is being refurbished so Craig is placed into the adult wing. Once there, Craig encounters an eclectic group of adults and kids who are just as messed up—or even more so—as he is. The residents include a girl who cuts her face with a scissors, an adult who won’t leave his bed, and a transsexual sex addict. Will Craig get better in this madhouse of quirky personalities and deviant social teenagers? Or will his depression worsen, causing him to return to his original plan of jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: First let me get one thing straight—most middle school kids should not read this book. Why? It’s because the novel is filled with references to drug use and sex. Many of these references are not subtle and there isn’t any confusion about what is being discussed. This book is more suitable for high school kids and is widely read by them.

Why middle school kids should read this book: There could be situations in which older middle school kids should be reading this book. If the child is struggling emotionally and already has encountered drugs, sex, and circumstances in their lives which are out of the norm for most other kids, then this book may be very appropriate for them. If the kid has a history of severe depression, they may be able to resonate and identify with some of the characters in this story. If a middle school kid is at this point, one of the last things we should be worrying about is if they are reading a book containing references to marijuana. There are bigger problems which need addressing. It’s Kind of a Funny Story has a hopeful ending and the main character begins to see a way out of his self-imposed prison, so there may be something here for some middle school kids. Some mature middle school kids who are not depressed will also like this book because while the language is rough, it is also a somewhat funny book told in a droll manner.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Do most kids who think about committing suicide actually commit suicide? (Do some research to find out.) What is effective in preventing kids from harming themselves?
  • What are the circumstances which cause Alex to become depressed and check himself into a hospital?
  • Imagine if you found yourself in Alex’s situation. What would you do? What would you do to help yourself?
  • Based on It’s Kind of a Funny Story, how do kids not become depressed? What do kids who are not depressed do which is different from kids who are depressed?
  • This novel has lots of references to drug-use, sex, and bad language. Are they necessary for the story to be told? Why or why not?

Overall evaluation of this book: A realistic book about depression which is not suitable for most middle school kids. Three Stars ★★★

Book Reviewed: Volponi, Paul. (2011). Crossing Lines. New York: Penguin Group.

Summary: Adonis is an offensive lineman on the high school football team. He’s a pretty good player and is dating a cute girl named Melody. Recently, a new boy, Alan, has begun attending school. Alan quickly becomes the unfortunate focus of the football team who don’t like Adam because he has so many “gay” features and mannerisms. Adonis joins in the teasing and harassment of Alan, and is supported by his father, though his mother disapproves. Events escalate when Alan wants to join the fashion club, an organization comprised exclusively of girls. The football team, led by their cruel quarterback, Ethan, escalate their verbal war against Alan and eventually come up with a plan to really hurt Alan. Which side will Adonis take? Will he join the girls in protecting Alan or will he gravitate over to the side of the football team and help carry out a devastating deed?

What you should know before middle school kids read this book: This book is filled with offensive language, virtually all of it delivered by the bullies and football players toward Alan, the student they think is gay. The language is harsh but realistic as to what some kids have to put up with from their homo-phobic peers. If kids are not used to hearing such profanities, they may be startled or turned off. Because of the language, you should probably steer younger middle school child into other books.

Why middle school kids should read this book: Even though the book has lots of offensive language, the story line is believable and plausible. There’s something for both boys and girls when they read this book. Because the story is told from the point of view of Adonis, many kids will resonate with his dilemma and the problems that arise when they have to make a decision and stand with their larger group of friends or do what is right and stand with the smaller group of people who are being victimized.

Discussion points with kids:

  • Tell the story from Alan’s point of view. How does the story change? How does it stay the same?
  • This book presents a negative view of the culture that can exist within a macho football team. Are all football teams like the one in Crossing Lines? What factors contribute in creating a sports team which is mean to some kids?
  • Melody is Adonis’ boyfriend. What does she see in Adonis? Why is she his boyfriend?
  • Do you think Alan is a courageous individual? Or is he making bad decisions? Find three examples in the book where Alan displays courage or you think he is making bad decisions. Explain why Alan is so courageous. If you don’t think he is courageous, explain why you think he is making bad decisions.

Overall evaluation of this book: A good story, founded in sometimes unfortunate reality. Four Stars ★★★★

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