LaRose by Louise Erdrich

LaRoseLaRose by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a big Louise Erdrich fan and this novel did not disappoint. Set on the outskirts of a Native American reservation the story begins with tragedy: a neighbor accidentally shoots and kill’s his neighbor’s 6 year-old son while hunting in their adjacent woods. In an effort to provide solace and justice to the suffering family, he and his wife, who is a half-sister to the child’s mother, “give” their youngest son LaRose to the family. The rest of the story is dedicated to the collective grief the two families suffer and the family histories that led them to this point. The story is gripping at times with lots of foreboding and beautiful metaphors. The characters are complex and well-wrought and the history of mistreatment and exploitation of Native Americans is palpable throughout. A highly recommended read. ~ Ms Dimmick

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Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Turtles All the Way DownTurtles All the Way Down by John Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed revisiting John Green’s smart, snappy, snarky, funny prose after a long break. I also appreciated his insight into the mind of an obsessive, compulsive teen, something he portrayed with empathy and realism. The plot, a “mystery,” definitely felt like a device for him to explore the characters and their relationships, which didn’t bother me much because that part was done well, but a mystery reader would be seriously disappointed by the predictability and anticlimactic nature of the ending. Read it if you’re a John Green fan or if you suffer from or want to learn more about obsessive compulsive disorder. ~ Ms Dimmick

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The Mothers, by Brit Bennett

The MothersThe Mothers by Brit Bennett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Mothers was an enjoyable read with a disappointing ending. The lack of a complete narrative arc left me wondering what the point of the story was, and in fact I wondered whether it was written as a cautionary tale for those considering abortion. Though the message was not actively anti-abortion, the teenaged abortion in this story seems to have left an indelible mark on the prospective mother, father, grandparents, friends and an entire church for years to come. Then again, the protagonist’s mother, who was apparently depressed over her fate which was decided at a young age due to an unplanned pregnancy, committed suicide. Maybe the message is just not to risk an unplanned pregnancy because you’re damned either way. The story was well-written, but felt unfinished. ~ Ms Dimmick

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A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline

A Piece of the WorldA Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, a wonderful work of well-researched historical fiction. I’m a sucker for anything set in Maine, and when you add in a fictionalized but realistic account of the backstory of one of my favorite works of American art, Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, I’m a goner. The characters are fully developed and the alternately bleak and beautiful setting in mid-coast Maine is so vivid I can feel the fog on my face and the dried field grass prickling my feet. As is the case with all good historical fiction, I found myself learning about what life was like during a bygone era while being fully transported by the story. Be warned, however, this is not an uplifting book. Life was hard and disappointing, and you will suffer with Christina as you read it, but it will be worth it. ~Ms Dimmick

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Royals by Rachel Hawkins

RoyalsRoyals by Rachel Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a review of an advance reader copy, the book is scheduled to be published May 2018.

Daisy Winters is not exactly your typical Florida teenager – sure she’s got a job at the local convenience store, boy troubles and all the standard teen drama, but she’s also got an mermaid princess hair, an ex-British rock star for a father, and oh yeah, a sister who just got engaged to the future King of Scotland.

Hawkins was clearly *thrilled* with the announcement of Meghan Markle’s engagement to Prince Harry – the timing could not have been better for her YA romance. The story follows Daisy as she heads to Scotland for the summer to meet her royal soon to be in-laws, dodging paparazzi and drunken minor royals. There were a few too many barely sketched out characters – if even Daisy can’t keep the group of friends around the prince’s younger brother straight, how is the reader supposed to? – and the main “villain,” the current Queen of Scotland, is a bit one-note. The romance ends up exactly where you think it will, but that’s perfectly fine for this sort of book. Something nice and fun to read while waiting for the real royal wedding.

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Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary GraceOrdinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beautifully written with achingly wrought characters, it’s hard to conceive of this novel as a murder mystery because at its heart is is a coming of age story for two unremarkable midwestern boys in the summer of 1961. Drawn more than told by 13 year-old Frank, or rather 50 year-old Frank reflecting on the disastrous events of the summer he reckoned with racial prejudice, class, bullying, sex, passion, grief, murder, miracles, and faith and was thrust into adulthood. Krueger’s descriptions of summer in Minnesota in the 1960s are so evocative you can hear the chirping of the crickets and taste the Kool-Aid on your tongue, all the while turning pages swiftly to discover the next foreshadowed disaster to befall this charming small town. Echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird are felt here, with the strong sense of place, the flawless moral bearing of Frank’s father, Pastor Nathan Drum, and the loss of innocence that comes from eavesdropping on adult conversations that are not meant for children’s ears. This one will stick with me for a long time to come. ~ Ms Dimmick

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Student Review: Among Schoolchildren, by Tracy Kidder (reviewed by Brianna W.)

Among SchoolchildrenAmong Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Imagine being a child’s doctor, lawyer, psychologist, and teacher all before 7:30 AM. Chris Zajac does this every day. In Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder, Kidder sits in a classroom and observes Chris Zajac’s fifth grade class for an entire school year. Mrs. Zajac teaches in Holyoke Massachusetts, which at the time of the book is struggling with poverty. This book explores what it is like to teach and learn in a neighborhood where most people are living below the poverty line. These challenges are something most people have never experienced, and it opens the reader’s eyes to what it is like to teach and learn in this environment. Mrs. Zajac is an upbeat, caring teacher who does all she can for her students. While this book tackles the problem of teaching in poverty, the book can be repetitive and too detailed. Among Schoolchildren has many connections to Waiting for Superman because it is clear that Mrs. Zajac needs a saving figure to help many of these children.

Holyoke is an impoverished old mill city. Growing up in Newton, I have never experienced this type of poverty, especially not in school. However, after reading this book, I realize that perhaps there are kids like Mrs. Zajacs’, and I just don’t know about them. This situation is very similar to Waiting for Superman because many kids in the movie could not afford private school; therefore, they need to suffer in their old public schools. While the book does not talk about kids wanting to leave, the situations they are facing are similar. Kidder presents in great detail the many different children in the class and their extreme challenges, such as disobedience, disrespect, fighting, and learning disabilities. The reader feels as if he or she is actually in the classroom setting.

Showing what it is like to learn and teach in a poor area is the best aspect of the book. Kidder does an excellent job revealing how students respond to Mrs. Zajac’s positive teaching style. In describing one student’s positive reaction, Kidder writes, “He’d make a drawing for her, or write an anonymous love note, and for a while tiptoe around her, saying his pleases and thank-yous…He liked her too and he needed her” (159). Mrs. Zajac helps students overcome their tough home lives and balance this with successful schoolwork. Many students have rough home lives in both the book and the movie; many students “looked shabby and dejected” at first, but after Mrs. Zajac helped them and taught them many looked “neat and pert” (77). This is the biggest difference between Among Schoolchildren and Waiting for Superman because Mrs. Zajac is an incredible teacher who truly cares about her students. Waiting for Superman talks more about what teachers need to do in order to improve, rather than focusing on the amazing teachers.

While Among Schoolchildren opened my eyes to what school would be like in a poor environment, it is overly repetitive when talking about each child. Chapter two of the “Homework” section (72-107) is spent explaining what each child got on a test and why Mrs. Zajac believes they received their scores. While it is important to explain grades and expectations, it does not need to take up this much space.

Mrs. Zajac has a difficult time getting a student named Clarence to put in effort to learn. She spends many hours after class working with him and many hours on the weekend worrying about him. Kidder shows the reader how much teachers care about their students and how they will do all they can to help them improve. Much of the “Sent Away” section of the book is spent talking about how to help Clarence and what would be the best way to help him learn. It is eventually decided that Clarence will leave Mrs. Zajac’s class and go to a class called “Alpha.” Mrs. Zajac sends Clarence “into a notorious group of troublemakers” (185). Here Kidder shows that even the best of teachers can feel like they fail their students. Mrs. Zajac “thought about Robert. ‘He’s my failure, I guess. Him and Clarence.’” Clarence is just one example of the difficult students in Mrs. Zajac’s classroom. By giving detailed descriptions of the back and forth between Mrs. Zajac and her difficult students, Kidder reveals the hard truth of teaching.

Among Schoolchildren shows the reader the difficult side of schooling in a poor city. Kidder’s detailed descriptions reveal the positives and negatives of teaching and learning in this environment. Most importantly, the book portrays how teachers truly care about their students and try to do everything they can for them. ~ Student: Brianna W.

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Student Review: Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, by Monique Morris (reviewed by Susannah K.)

Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in SchoolsPushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique Morris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not many nonfiction books start out with a playful rhyme and the story of how an eleven-year-old began to call herself a “ho.” Monique W. Morris begins her book Pushout this way and makes it work. It draws the reader in, and invests them in the story of eleven-year-old Danisha with her “baby face.” She is already a prostitute at such a young age. Morris explains to the reader what lead to this happening. She then uses this, and many other interviews to drive home her point: black girls are being criminalized all too often in schools. She has interviews from black girls in all different schools and situations who give examples of how they have been treated unfairly-sometimes even violently-just for being black and a woman. Pushout helps people to understand just how serious the problem of black girls being treated unfairly is and to sympathize with them more than they ever have before.

Although Pushout is extremely detailed and great for getting an inside look into black girls in schools, the language can be heavy and difficult to unpack. For some, it might discourage them from reading a book on such an important and relevant topic. The interviews, since they were done of children and teens, were simpler and more understandable. However, Morris’s explanations of these interviews could be hard for some to thoroughly interpret because of the complex language. This book is important for people of all ages, races, genders, etc. to read because of how it shines a light on a topic that seems to be shoved under the rug. It would be even better if the language was slightly simpler, so more people who should read it are able to.

Another major topic that was important for Morris to talk about is the school to prison pipeline. When black girls, or others in general, are criminalized in schools, that leads to them getting in trouble with the law outside of school as well. If a girl is constantly berated for dress code violations, being too loud, and other small offenses, they are not going to want to go to school. Not going to school generally leads to getting in trouble with the law, or just being in the wrong crowds of people. Pushout emphasizes the importance of stopping this with the interviews that are used throughout the entire book.

Yet another great addition to Pushout was all the resources and extra facts in the back. After completing this book, the reader might be wondering “What now?” Having a whole slew of additional questions, facts, resources, etc. allows the reader to answer this question and see what else they can do. This is a very helpful idea, and if more nonfiction books included something similar, more people might actually be active in helping others.

Overall, Pushout is an incredible book that definitely deserves more popularity than it has now. How black girls are treated in schools, specifically how they are criminalized, is something that everyone should be aware of. If people are aware of it, they can also start learning how to spot it and actively end it. Adults reading it can inspire others in their community, and teens can help out their black female peers to receive the best education they possibly can. ~ Student Review: Susannah K.

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Student Review: The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner (reviewed by Daniel H.)

The Global Achievement Gap: Why Our Kids Don't Have the Skills They Need for College, Careers, and Citizenship—and What We Can Do About ItThe Global Achievement Gap: Why Our Kids Don’t Have the Skills They Need for College, Careers, and Citizenship—and What We Can Do About It by Tony Wagner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Many American students would expect the United States to be a leading country in healthcare and education but in fact the United States is ranked 17th in educational performance in the world.

The education system is faulty at its core since it is stuck in a trance teaching to the methods that were developed for the past. Nowadays employers are expecting students who know and can fluidly use the seven survival skills. These skills are proven to be necessary in the book by Tony Wagner, The Global Achievement Gap. This book looks at how the schools are using multiple choice tests designed by the state to see where their students are on their literacy and mathematical skills. The problem with many of these test as Wagner puts it is “these tests do not indicate whether a student is ready for college even if they achieved a passing score” As I was reading this book I agreed with many of Wagner’s points. As a high school student I often feel that that the class is just teaching for the final test. It is not just Wagner who believes that the schools are not preparing their students adequately for high education. In the documentary Waiting for Superman the film mentioned the unreliability of state tests since they are incredibly skewed and often solely prepared for during the year.

As mentioned earlier the new skills needed for the future aren’t test taking but the seven survival skills. These skills are in high demand by employers because students with these skills know how to work with a team, problem solve, communicate with others and are curious to learn. Wagner spends a chapter interviewing successful business leaders on what they look for in their employees, and each one responded with the seven skills. In a study of elementary schools funded by the National Health Institute researchers concluded their research with this “In a course of 20 minutes the majority is spent watching the teacher do problems or working on a worksheet alone with minimal feedback. Few opportunities were provided to work in small groups and work on analytical skills.” This form of teaching which is very linear and focused on math and English is due to the “No Child Left Behind” Law. Due to this law schools are tested every year on these skills and many receive the needs improvement standard. This is why Wagner says the state tests can be questioned for their effectiveness. The school’s focus all their time and money on the two subjects tested while cutting out the classes and skills that prepare students for post education.

The documentary Waiting for Superman blames the failing schools as the fault of the teachers. Although it may seem logical to blame the teachers who have proven failures, it is not justified to blame all teachers for the failing students. It can’t be the fault of the teachers themselves since their training is mainly consisted of the core classes such as English, history and math. When Wagner interviewed dozens of teachers they all said “With very few courses that teach how to be effective teachers and none on how to be a change -leader or even to supervise teachers effectively.” Without the proper skills teachers can’t be expected to do their job effectively. Wagner explains a major reason why schools fail is due to the faculty’s lack of understanding for the current challenges in schools and classrooms. This book provides extensive proof for the need to change the current way our education system is run. It should be important for everyone to understand that passing the test is not enough. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to do more for their education.
~ Student Review: Daniel H.

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book covers a lot of ground and it does it very well. Starr is a 16-year old African American girl living in a poor inner-city neighborhood while attending a private school for mostly white students about 45 minutes from her home. That alone could be a book as Starr describes the balancing act of straddling all her worlds — home, with her close-knit family (dad owns a grocery in the hood and mom is a RN, uncle is a cop); school, with her mostly white friends (who are sometimes inadvertently racist and often clueless), and in the neighborhood, where she tries to maintain relationships with her two oldest friends, Khalil and Kenya. Starr’s parents had enrolled her in private school after her best friend was gunned down in a drive-by shooting when they were ten. But that won’t be Starr’s only brush with violence. The bulk of the novel covers the aftermath of Khalil’s death, which Starr also witnesses. Angie Thomas has written a very balanced and well crafted story that should move to the top of your “To Read” pile. – Ms. Steiger

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