Title: Speak
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Publisher: Square Fish
ISBN: 978-0-374-37152-4
Rating: 2/5 Stars


SCASL Book Award (South Carolina)
Sequoyah Book Award
( WON AWARD in 2002 )
Volunteer State Book Award
( WON AWARD in 2002 )
Pennsylvania Young Reader’s Choice Award
Evergreen Young Adult Book Award
( WON AWARD in 2002 )
Garden State Teen Book Award
( WON AWARD in 2002 )
Iowa Teen Award
California Young Reader Medal
Nevada Young Reader’s Award
Virginia Reader’s Choice Awards
Black-Eyed Susan Book Award
ABC Children’s Booksellers Choices Awards
( WON AWARD in 2000 )
Carolyn W. Field Award (Pennsylvania Library Association)
( WON AWARD in 2000 )
Grand Canyon Reader Award
Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award


Different from her other historical fiction works, Anderson dives into the painful world of a high school girl in her novel Speak.  Staying silent seems to be the coping mechanism of choice for the main character in this novel.  Melinda, a freshman high school student, comes to life as Anderson describes in painful detail the daily comings and goings of a girl, struggling with life. Although painful to read at times, Anderson does a wonderful job endearing the reader to her character, generating sympathy when she is shunned from every high school clique and creating lonliness that was practically palpable as Melinda slipped deeper and deeper into her silent world.  Geared toward an older audience, Speak puts in words the emotions of a young girl who has endured a great tragedy.


Review Excerpt:

In a stunning first novel, Anderson uses keen observations and vivid imagery to pull readers into the head of an isolated teenager. Divided into the four marking periods of an academic year, the novel, narrated by Melinda Sordino, begins on her first day as a high school freshman. No one will sit with Melinda on the bus. At school, students call her names and harass her; her best friends from junior high scatter to different cliques and abandon her. Yet Anderson infuses the narrative with a wit that sustains the heroine through her pain and holds readers’ empathy. A girl at a school pep rally offers an explanation of the heroine’s pariah status when she confronts Melinda about calling the police at a summer party, resulting in several arrests. But readers do not learn why Melinda made the call until much later: a popular senior raped her that night and, because of her trauma, she barely speaks at all. Only through her work in art class, and with the support of a compassionate teacher there, does she begin to reach out to others and eventually find her voice. Through the first-person narration, the author makes Melinda’s pain palpable: “I stand in the center aisle of the auditorium, a wounded zebra in a National Geographic special.” Though the symbolism is sometimes heavy-handed, it is effective. The ending, in which her attacker comes after her once more, is the only part of the plot that feels forced. But the book’s overall gritty realism and Melinda’s hard-won metamorphosis will leave readers touched and inspired.    -Publisher’s Weekly


This book should be read with adult supervision.  The messages in this book make it the perfect choice for a high school book club.


2014. “Speak.” Books In Print. Ebsco.

Amazon. 2014. “Speak.” http://www.amazon.com/Speak-Laurie-Halse-Anderson/dp/0312674392

Anderson, Laurie Halse. 1999. Speak. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.


Nory Ryan’s Song

Title: Nory Ryan’s Song
Author: Patricia Reilly Giff
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 9780440418290
Rating: 2/5 Stars



Although the plot of this book looked promising, the audio book falls far short of the exciting story imagined in a reader’s mind.  Although the reader will enjoy the Irish accents of the narrator, her lilt morphs into more of a monotonous drum as the book progresses.  After a slow start, the author attempts to bring to life the emotion of a poor, Irish family whose members navigate the potato famine of Ireland summoning the will to survive.  The details of digging up the black potatoes, the pains of hunger, and the frustration towards the English endear the reader to the suffering characters of Ireland.  Giff lays a great foundation for an interesting series; one uncommonly addressing the plight of the poor Irish during the tragic potato famine.  Where will they end up?  That is the question the reader will wonder as every page turns, up until the end of the book.

Review Excerpt:

As narrator, her voice is melodious. As character, she heightens the pathos of the times–the whine of young Patch as he begs for food, the desperation of Nory as she climbs for bird eggs on a cliff, the horror of Sean and Nory as they see streams of people coming to their beach to gather limpets and mussels, the conviction of Anna that she will be happy when her neighbors leave for America. The combination of Giff’s story and Lynch’s voice creates a memorable listening experience. -audiofile review


After reading this book, students should compare the emotions brought about by the Irish potato famine to those endured by Joseph’s family during the Egyptian famine of Biblical times.


2014. “Nory Ryan’s Song.” Books In Print. Ebsco.

Amazon. 2014. “Breaking Stalin’s Nose.” http://www.amazon.com/Breaking-Stalins-Nose-Eugene-Yelchin/dp/1250034108

Eugene Yelchin Books. 2014. “Breaking Stalin’s Nose.” http://www.eugeneyelchinbooks.com/stalinsnose.php

Audioflie. 2001. “Nory Ryan’s Song.” http://www.audiofilemagazine.com/reviews/read/20832/

Yelchin, Eugene. 2011. Breaking Stalin’s Nose. New York: Square Fish.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose

Title: Breaking Stalin’s Nose
Author: Eugene Yelchin
Publisher: Square Fish
ISBN: 1250034108
Rating: 3.5/5 stars


  • Horn Book’s Best Fiction Books of 2011
  • 2012 Newbery Honor Book (American Library Association)
  • 2012 Junior Library Guild Selection
  • 2012 Distinguished Work of Historical Fiction Award (Children’s Literature Council of Southern California)
  • 2012 Women’s National Book Association’s Judy Lopez Memorial Award
  • 2013 KS William Allen White Award
  • The Best Children’s Books of 2011 by the Horn Book Magazine
  • The Best Children’s Books of 2011 by Washington Post
  • 2012 Capitol Choices Book, Noteworthy Books for Children
  • 2012 Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth by Booklist
  • 2012 NY Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year
  • 2012 Finalist for California Book Awards
  • 2012 Michigan Library Association Mitten Award
  • 2011 Editor’s Choice by Historical Novel Society
  • 2011 Nominated for Cybills Children’s and YA Bloggers’ Literary Awards
  • 2011 Nominated for Best Fiction by Young Adult Library Association


Perfect for the young middle schooler, Breaking Stalin’s Nose  describes the frightening life lived by many during Stalin’s reign.  Beginning with complete devotion to the government, Velchin tracks a young boy’s maturation and world-discovery over the course of no more than a few days.  The book opens with the main character, Sasha Zeichik writing a passionate fan letter of sorts to Stalin himself.  However, soon his father is taken away by the government without explanation.  Armed with cryptic message from dad, Sasha spends the next day discovering the truth of this country he thought he held dear.  Creating a strong mental picture of the reign of Stalin, Velchin unwraps a portion of history appropriately detailed and focused toward young middle grades students.  The excitement and quick pace of the story will keep reluctant readers involved, and all will glean a bit of history from this entertaining story.

Review Excerpt:

This brief novel gets at the heart of a society that asks its citizens, even its children, to report on relatives and friends. Appropriately menacing illustrations by first-time novelist Yelchin add a sinister tone.” —The Horn Book, starred review via Amazon


Have students compare and contrast Breaking Stalin’s Nose with Inside Out and Back Again to see two different views of Communist society.


Amazon. 2014. “Breaking Stalin’s Nose.” http://www.amazon.com/Breaking-Stalins-Nose-Eugene-Yelchin/dp/1250034108

Eugene Yelchin Books. 2014. “Breaking Stalin’s Nose.” http://www.eugeneyelchinbooks.com/stalinsnose.php

Yelchin, Eugene. 2011. Breaking Stalin’s Nose. New York: Square Fish.

Elijah of Buxton

Title: Elijah of Buxton
Author: Christopher Paul Curtis
Publisher: Scholastic
ISBN: 0439023459
Rating: 3/5 stars


Coretta Scott King Award, 2008

Newbery Honor Book Award, 2008

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, 2008


Christopher Paul Curtis paints a life-like picture of the world of freed slaves in Canada and their struggles as they attempt to help others experience such freedom.  With distinctive cultural dialect, Curtis draws the reader into the novel, creating a personal connection between the characters and the reader.  Beginning with a loving practical joke amongst Elijah’s family, Curtis set the scene, developing empathy for the main character.  However, his encounters with the local “preacher” of the town prove Elijah to be a suspicious yet immature young man who is beginning an adventure of a lifetime.  Through his journeys, Curtis uses Elijah to develop the ideas, feelings, and events of the time when slaves of North America sought their freedom.

Review Excerpt:

This is not a zip-ahead-and-see-what-happens-next novel. It’s for settling into and savoring the rich, masterful storytelling, for getting to know Elijah, Cooter and the Preacher, for laughing at stories of hoop snakes, toady-frogs and fish-head chunking and crying when Leroy finally gets money to buy back his wife and children, but has the money stolen. Then Elijah journeys to America and risks his life to do what’s right. This is Curtis’s best novel yet, and no doubt many readers, young and old, will finish and say, “This is one of the best books I have ever read.”


Divide the class in half, having half read this book fro the view point of a freed slave society.  The other half of the class should read Jeffersons Sons.  Students should compare and contrast the depictions of slavery in each book.


Kirkus Reviews. 2010. “Elijah of Buxton.” https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/christopher-paul-curtis/elijah-of-buxton/

Curtis, Christopher Paul. 2007. Elijah of Buxton. New York: Scholastic.

Review of the Day. 2011. “Jefferson’s Sons.” http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2011/08/29/review-of-the-day-jeffersons-sons-by-kimberly-brubaker-bradley/#_

Across American on an Emigrant Train

Title: Across American on an Emigrant Train
Author: Jim Murphy
Publisher: Scholastic
ISBN: 0395764831


NCTE Orbis Pictus Award

The Jefferson Cup Award

ALA Notable Children’s Book

ALA Booklist Editor’s Choice

Horn Book Fanfare

SLJ Best Book of the Year

Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Language Arts

Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies

Book Links Salutes “A Few Good Books”


Review Excerpt:

Gr. 5 and up. As he did in The Boys’ War (1990) and The Long Road to Gettysburg (1992), Murphy draws on memoirs and letters to humanize history. This time his main source is the journal of the great writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who traveled in 1879 from Scotland to the woman he loved in California, first on a crowded boat and then on a series of crammed, painfully uncomfortable trains on the transcontinental railroad. Murphy weaves together Stevenson’s perilous journey with a general history of the railroad–how it was planned and built, who built it, what it was like to ride it if you were rich and if you were poor, and how it changed the country and those who lived there. Murphy’s style is plain: facts and feelings tell a compelling story of adventure and failure, courage and cruelty, enrichment and oppression. The handsome book’s design includes lots of white space, two endpaper maps, and many prints, drawings, and black-and-white photographs, carefully captioned to make you pore over the details. The direct quotations from Stevenson show him as observer and participant. This was before he became famous, and he identifies with the emigrants’ painful struggle as well as their hope. He’s excited by the diversity in America (he loves the place names that express how “all times, races, and languages have brought their contribution”); at the same time, he’s appalled at the treatment of Native Americans (“I was ashamed for the thing we call civilization”). Murphy provides no direct documentation (often the source is “one passenger recalled,” “some historians have speculated”), but the very long bibliography will be a starting point for those stimulated to read further. The experience of ordinary people revitalizes the myths of the West. Hazel Rochman 



Amazon. 2014. “Across America on an Emigrant Train.” http://www.amazon.com/Across-America-Emigrant-Train-Murphy/dp/0395764831

“Across America on an Emigrant Train.” Books In Print. Ebsco.

Jim Murphy. “Books by Jim Murphy.” http://www.jimmurphybooks.com/train.htm

Murphy, Jim. 1 January 1999. Across America on an Emigrant Train. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

The War to End All Wars: World War I

Title: Bomb: The War to End All Wars: World War I
Author: Russell Freedman
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2013
Rating: 3.5/5 stars


2012 Volunteer State Award Nominee


It seems to me that World War I is quite often overshadowed by its big brother World War II. However, in his book, The War to End All Wars, Russell Freedman dissects the ins and outs of the causes and effects of the first World War. Although laden with details and a bit hard to follow for younger students, Freedman writes a beautiful picture of how war changed forever with the start of the first world war.  From the assassination to Frans Ferdinand to the Christmas Day Truce, the details are simply fascinating and Freedman presents them in an exciting way.

Freedman fills the book with attention-grabbing photos; readers have a hard time tearing their eyes away from the pictures to continue on reading the text, eager to find out what events unfold next. Freedman also characterizes the major players in the war, brilliantly connecting the reader to the intense emotions of the world leaders almost to the point of feeling like you once knew these figures. War does not move slow, and neither does the book. Each sentence full of information, the reader must pace their eyes, allowing their brain to fully digest the gravity of the information read. With photos and maps to help the reader sort out the basic information, this book touches on all points of the war, becoming an incredible resource for students.

Review Excerpt:

Freedman lucidly recounts the origins, meaning, and legacy of history’s first “total” war that spanned the globe and was characterized by the horrors and brutality of trench warfare. In synthesizing larger scholarly works, the author’s excellent narrative skillfully encompasses all facets of the conflict including battles, leaders, and the new technologies that made it so destructive. Freedman also provides a keen analysis of the ramifications of the war, including an end to a century of American isolation, the Russian Revolution, and the troubled legacy of defeat that provided a foundation for the rise of Fascism and Nazi Germany. Elegantly written and filled with vivid, powerful photographs, this masterful work demands a spot in every collection.—Brian Odom, Pelham Public Library, AL 


This book should be used as a resource for students interested in the intricacies of the first world war.  It provides a wonderful overview of the relationships between the European countries at the beginning of the 20th century.  So often the details of The Great War are skimmed in class due to time constraints.  This book would be an incredible supplementary source for older middle grade students interested in the development of war throughout the ages.


Amazon. 2014. “The War to End All Wars: World War I.” http://www.amazon.com/The-War-End-All-Wars/dp/0544021711#customerReviews

Freedman, Russell. 28 April 2013. The War to End All Wars: World War I. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“The War to End All Wars.” Books In Print. Ebsco.

Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon

Title: Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon
Author: Steve Sheinkin
Publisher: Flash Point, September 4, 2012
ISBN: 596434872
Rating: 5/5 stars


2012 National Book Awards finalist for Young People’s Literature

2013 NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K—12

2013 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Winner

2012 SLJ Best Children’s Books, Nonfiction

2012 Horn Book Fanfare, Nonfiction

2012 Bulletin Blue Ribbon, Nonfiction;

2012 VOYAs Perfect Tens

2103 Newbery Medal Honor Book

2013 Robert F. Sibert Medal Winner

2012 Cybils Award Winner, Nonfiction for Tweens and Teens

2013 ALSC Notable Children’s Books, Middle Readers

2013 NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, World History & Culture


This book is a must read for boys and girls across the nation.  Steve Sheinkin expertly takes the reader on one of the most intense races of their reading life, walking chronologically through a window of history.  With its brief sentences and action-capturing photographs, Sheinkin teaches even the youngest middle schoolers the basic evolution of the atomic bomb including the scientific details.  No detail is spared, yet the reader is not overwhelmed with information too challenging to digest.  This book will appeal to history buffs, science geeks and adventure junkies.  The non-fiction book reads just as an exciting novel, keeping the reader guessing as to how the details will pan out and would be a perfect segue for young readers from fiction to non-fiction.  Constantly wondering if the other countries will beat America to the atomic bomb solution, the reader unknowing finds themselves absorbing and understanding complex scientific facts and a fully comprehensive history lesson about World War II.  Steve Sheinkin creates characters with whom the reader creates a connection; readers who worry if their favorite character will succomb to the pressures of espionage or actually get caught by authorities.  Readers cannot turn the pages fast enough.  This book is a great addition to any history classroom, creating a connection between the reader and the actual events of history.

Review Excerpt:

“In his highly readable storytelling style, Sheinkin (The Notorious Benedict Arnold) weaves together tales of scientific and technological discovery, back-alley espionage, and wartime sabotage in a riveting account of the race to build the first atomic weapon.” Publisher’s Weekly

Connections: Create a time line of World War II from different points of view. Use this book as one of your resources.


2014 “Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.” Junior Library Guild. http://www.juniorlibraryguild.com/books/view.dT/9781596434875

13 August 2012. “Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon.” Publisher’s Weekly. http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-59643-487-5

Sheinkin, Steve. 2012. Bomb: The Race to Build – and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. New York: Roaring Brook Press.

Lives: Poems About Famous Americans

Title: Lives: Poems About Famous Americans
Selected by: Lee Bennett Hopkins

Illustrated by: Leslie Staub

Publisher: Harper Collins, 1999
ISBN: 0-06-027767-X
Rating: 2/5 stars

Awards: None

Although an intriguing concept, Hopkins falls short of accomplishing the task of melding history with poetry.  In this topical collection of poetry, Hopkins gathers fourteen poems written by various authors in order to depict a personal, emotional image of important American figures.  From the fear missing from Paul Revere’s midnight ride to the awe absent from Edison’s inventions, these poems do little to create an emotional connection between the reader and the verse.  And although the illustrations are substantial and colorful, the images lack a true authenticity.  Anne Sullivan Macy’s stoic face displays no notion of her compassion for Helen Keller.  The one saving grace for many of these poems included in this anthology is that the words create a beautiful rhythm and the poems are short enough to be read aloud. Yet even with a strong beat, the authors missed out on beautiful word pictures, not portraying the crack of Babe Ruth’s bat or the pride instilled by JFK.

Review Excerpt: There is a good balance of men and women represented as well as a variety of personalities from Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks to Neil Armstrong and Langston Hughes.” -School Library Journal

Connections: This collection of poetry would be a good starting place in a research project about famous Americans.  Although some connection can be bridged, this book only offers a beginning.  The short poems touch on many details of the lives of the famous Americans, giving students a topical research list for each historical figure.


Hopkins, Lee Bennett. 1999. Lives: Poems About Famous Americans. USA: Harper Collins.

1 June 1999. “Professional Review.” School Library Journal. Books in Print.

Inside Out and Back Again

Title: Inside Out and Back Again
Author: Thanhha Lai
Publisher: Harper, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-196279-0
Rating: 5/5 stars


  • Newberry Honor Book
  • National Book Award Winner

In a beautifully written poetic novel about a young girl and her family’s escape from Vietnam just after the war, Lai skillfully draws the reader into a piece of history.  Ha’s journey away from the impending Communist government in Vietnam is wrought with emotion, fitting for poetry.  With few words, she endures a period in time that readers today are learning in history classrooms around the country, generating a broader sense of understanding as they connect with the fictional main character, Ha.  Each short verse overflows with emotion, yet the lack of embellished words is especially effective as the character struggles with few words to communicate in her new country.  Although not illustrated, Lai creates beautiful pictures with words, describing in detail the smell of the country, the taste of the mango, the feeling of the stranger’s red hair.  She brilliantly uses many figures of speech to paint this picture, including the over-emphasis of the “s” sound as Ha learns to speak English.  Comparing the “s” sound with a snake brilliantly depicts the fear image that consumes so much of the new world for Ha’s family. This book will not only entertain but also educate students, generating compassion for those who have endured life as a refugee.

Review Excerpt: “In her not-to-be-missed debut, Lai evokes a distinct time and place and presents a complex, realistic heroine whom readers will recognize, even if they haven’t found themselves in a strange new country.” -Kirkus 

Connections: As it happens, one of our school employees was a refugee from Cambodia during the same time.  After reading this story with the middle school book club, students will create a list of questions and interview her about her experience.


“Inside Out and Back Again.” Kirkus Review January 8, 2011. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/thanhha-lai/inside-out-and-back-againh/

Lai, Thanhha. 2011. Inside Out and Back Again New York: Harper.

The One and Only Ivan

Title: The One and Only Ivan
Author: Katherine Applegate

Illustrator: Patricia Castelao

Publisher: Harper, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-06-199225-4
Rating: 5/5 stars

Awards: Newberry Medal

In her book, The One and Only Ivan, Katherine Applegate skillfully weaves the emotion of both human and animal as they relate to one another. This poetic novel is a must read for all animal lovers. Ivan, a friend-to-all silverback gorilla, spends his days at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, as a showpiece to shoppers and mall-goers alike. He and his other animal compadres were a revenue-inducing gimmick the mall owner added to a once-failing mall in an effort to avoid bankruptcy. For a while, the animals brought hordes of visitors however, more recently the visitors trickle more and more slowly.   The struggle Ivan endures, coming to terms the actuality that his habitat is actually a cage, endears the reader.  However, all hope is not lost as Ivan searches for a way out for at least one of his animal friends all the while worrying that her new home must have someone to tell her stories when she can’t fall asleep.

Applegate uses simple poetic verse to encapsulate Ivan’s simple animal mind and sparse habitat. However, with little words, she paints a picture of a compassionate gorilla who cares more about the well-being of other newer additions to the mall than he cares for himself. Her use of metaphors and similes are a surprisingly simple way Ivan compares the life of a gorilla to the lives of his human visitors. Castelao uses simple black and white drawings to mimic the simple life of the animals, but also includes intense shading in the illustrations which align with the deep emotions of both animal and human.  The rhythm of each word creates a drum beat slowly quickening towards the climax of the novel. Ivan will draw a novice poetry reader into the genre with a story that is poignant and passionate. An added bonus is the fact that this poetic novel is based on a true story.

Review Excerpt: “Utterly believable, this bittersweet story, complete with an author’s note identifying the real Ivan, will inspire a new generation of advocates.” –Kirkus

Related activities: In library class, students can research other animals who have become famous for their own artistic expression.

Works Cited:

Applegate, Katherine. 2012. The One and Only IvanNew York: Harper.

“The One and Only Ivan.” Kirkus Review October 15, 2011. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/katherine-applegate/one-and-only-ivan/