Category: Book Reviews

Where Reasons End

I’d started this novel by award-winning Yiyun Li at least five times since it was published in 2019. I finally sat down with it, reading once through and then again to take notes, in early December. The story takes place in some alternate reality called “aftertime” where a mother converses with her brilliant and funny sixteen-year-old son who’s recently died by suicide. He still calls her Mommy, like he did when he was alive. He was a musician, an avid reader, storyteller, poet, and a phenomenal baker.  Li writes with a quiet, persistent steadiness. The following passage is one of the many I pulled from this novel because it spoke to the ruminating thoughts of the past, the abrupt end of the future together, and then wove in the reality of time moving forward. Throughout the book, I pictured my son talking with me in the very same way Nikolai did with his mother. Yiyun Li is a MacCarthur Fellow. See the genius at work here: There is no rule against anything, including settling into too empty a space, he said. Makes you feel organized. Emptiness is different from unclutteredness, I said. Clutter up then, he said. Clutter, clatter, clot, cluster. None of the words, I thought, would release me from the void left by him. You’ll settle in sooner or later, even if it’s against your wish, he said. Li’s older son, Vincent, died by suicide at age sixteen in 2017.  Here’s a review by Troy Onyango: The Language…

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Melissa

I just finished reading the brilliant middle-grade debut, George, by Alex Gino with my sixth graders this winter. The novel is about George embracing her identity as Melissa. The book layers in so much about friendship, fear, and family relationships.  Even though George is in fourth grade, students acknowledged the material wasn’t condescending or babyish. They found the gendered structure of George’s school and the examples of toxic masculinity accurately portrayed in the story. Gino uses E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web like a unifying tapestry, weaving the various students, teachers, and their families together in this tale of acceptance. A student working on her English language skills read George independently, wrote a review, and then presented that write-up to the class. She was proud of herself for reading the entire book without a translator. She suggested I read the novel aloud for an all-class read. I agreed. Using the Sora reading app, I projected the story on a screen to share with the students. George is part of Scholastic’s Gold Line, joining a list of award-winning titles like Esperanza Rising, Rules, and Freak the Mighty. The book will be reissued as Melissa in 2022. As a writer, I am both dismayed and heartened by the fact that Gino’s journey from first draft to final publication took TWELVE years!! Since I love cross-curricular programming, reading and discussing George fell in line with a wider school discussion about identity during a recent all-school meeting. Our Equity & Inclusion Coordinator walked students and their…

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Starfish

The standing starfish pose is something I demo and offer to students who need an energy boost. It’s an effective stretch, especially right after lunch. The stretch is a signature move for the main character, Ellie, in the stunning debut novel by Lisa Fipps. The sixth graders and I had such forceful reactions to Ellie’s experience as a self-described Fat Girl with her Fat Girl Rules, verbally abusive mother and siblings, an no shortage of school-based bullies, too. Slowly, Ellie’s mindset shifts from self-loathing to self-love with the help of her supportive father, friends, and an astute therapist. As a former school counselor, I am always heartened when therapists are portrayed as competent and relatable in children’s literature. Dr. Wood’s approach to engage the reluctant Ellie in therapy were some of the strongest sections of the book. Starfish allowed ample opportunities for me to showcase the reading comp technique I employ, the Notice & Note Signposts developed by Probst & Beers, within the classroom. Students embraced that structure for close reading. They cheered Ellie on throughout her journey of self-discovery and shouldered a fair amount of her pain. Ultimately, they stretched themselves as readers and I’m so glad I was able to gift them this well-crafted work.

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The Shakespeare Requirement

I started Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Notes on Grief this summer. I read the first two chapters and set it aside. I couldn’t do it. Not yet. Soon. The grief books are piling up. That’s a good thing. The landscape for talking—embracing—the topics of death, grief, loss has certainly shifted in the last thirty years. I am grateful. What I needed was a break from grief and loss, a break from kid lit for lesson planning. I needed comedy. Adult comedy. The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher fit the bill. Payne University! The blue, buck-toothed mascot!  This review by Washington Post critic Ron Charles does the book justice and includes some comments from the author:  Campus Comedy – Shakespeare Requirement The whole thing is hilarious—every single page. Laugh on.

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Published: What a Children’s Book Taught Me (and My Students) About Grief

Michelle Cuevas’s powerful children’s book, The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole, features prominently in my essay about navigating grief while preparing for my new role as an English teacher at North Country School.  Independent School Magazine passed on my work with a personalized rejection and a website for school counselors ignored me altogether, so I pitched the piece to the Greater Good Science Center based at UC Berkeley.  I’d been a huge fan of Greater Good for years before I attended their weeklong Summer Institute for Educators in 2015. Shout out to Family #11!! That experience transformed my personal and professional life. The organization’s articles, courses, and resources continue to help me shape my goals inside and outside the classroom. You can read the essay here: What a Children’s Book Taught Me (and My Students) DECEMBER 2021: Yay for me! I made GGSC’s list (#4!!) of Best Education Articles of 2021

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Published: What’s Your Grief – Books & Broken Hearts

The website What’s Your Grief published a piece I wrote this summer. It highlights three contemporary middle-grade books that are ideal for facilitating meaningful conversations and classroom activities about trauma, grief, and loss with students. I’ll admit I was drawn to Rob Harrell’s book, Wink, because of the cover. The orange pops and the simple illustration is eye-catching (pun intended). The fictional story of Ross Maloy is based on Harrell’s real-life trials of going through middle school with a rare eye cancer. As I do with most books I preview for sharing with students, I listened to this book and then checked out the physical copy from my school’s library. One of Harrell’s masterful lines resonated with me each time: Eventually, the day got dark and ran out the way even the worst days do.     Rajani LaRocca’s debut is all about duality: family traditions and fitting in, gains and losses, life and death. An art teacher at North Country School recommended the work to me and its lyrical prose did not disappoint. Reha is the main character, an Indian-American teen in the mid-1980s, who tells her story in one powerful stanza after another. In addition to working as a writer, LaRocca is also a medical doctor. I can’t say enough about Michelle Cuevas’s sweet book, complete with whimsical illustrations, about young Stella and her black hole, Larry. This story includes so much about grief (Stella’s dad died) and growth (navigating out of the black hole) in real and…

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Grief Books for Grown Ups 2

This is a continuation of the list of books I’ve read during my close and personal relationship with grief since losing my son in 2018: Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief by David Kessler – Another well-known grief expert. I got this when I took Kessler’s video course of the same name. I’ll post a longer review about this book in the future. The Scar: A Personal History of Depression and Recovery by Mary Cregan – I made 68 notes on the Kindle version of this heartbreaking and hopeful memoir. I know I was reading it for answers to the question I have to stop asking, but I couldn’t help myself. Cregan’s ability to give me some semblance of clarity about suicide’s deceptive and distorted pull, along with the totally geeked-out history of mental institutions and our pharma nation made this a fascinating and helpful read. Artful Grief by Sharon Strouse – A friend from NCS gave this to me and I may not have found it on my own. Strouse is an art therapist who lost her teen daughter to suicide in 2001. This book and Unfinished Conversation by Robert E. Lesoine and Marilynne Chophel helped me create my Grief & Growth Notebook in my art studio. Yoga for Grief Relief by Antonio Sausys – The body holds so much pain after trauma. This book also has some decent writing/reflection exercises, too. I used this book, got a lot of therapeutic massages, and found my way to Paul…

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Grief Books for Grown Ups

I remember listening to the audio version of Life after Loss: A Practical Guide to Renewing Your Life After Experiencing Major Loss en route to the airport. It was a library book I downloaded for the ride. My husband was driving; our older son was leaving for an internship abroad. The date was December 28, exactly three months after our younger son’s suicide. I was sitting in the passenger seat, headphones in, rigid and brittle, holding my breath so I wouldn’t break apart. Then, the narrator explained, “Certain points in time after a major loss stand out with special significance.” The three-month marker, he said, “is often one of the most difficult times of all…..the full impact of the loss is upon you.” I snapped to attention. This validation—that the mishmash of shock and fear I’d lugged around every single day since September was morphing into something else—helped me feel a mild sense of relief. I bought a physical copy of the book when we got home. While there is plenty in Life After Loss I did not use or care for, there were practical goal-setting exercises that helped me chart a new course for myself. This website, pivoting from counseling to teaching, and an expansion of my creative reach sprung from Life After Loss. Here are some of the many other books I’ve read since that fateful fall of 2018 and continue to consult on this journey: The Unspeakable Loss: How Do You Live After a Child Dies? by…

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El Deafo

This book is considered a graphic novel memoir by author/illustrator Cece Bell. The story follows Cece from age four, when she suffers severe hearing loss as a result of a bout with meningitis, through the end of fifth grade. The fact that the story centers on hearing makes the choice to use rabbits as the characters all the more charming. Through Bell’s delightful drawings, Cece’s pre-illness life is all about wearing her favorite polka-dot swimsuit, watching TV, and having fun with friends. It’s 1975. Post-illness, Cece struggles with her hearing loss in a number of ways, shown deftly in the panels where she tries in vain to understand TV programs, her friends, and family. She sees a speech therapist who helps her learn to read lips, but reading lips is hard when there aren’t any context clues, people cover their mouths, shout, or talk over each other. Enter the Phonic Ear. Cece’s life changes dramatically. The Phonic Ear is a giant device she has to wear during the school year when her teachers are connected via a wearable microphone. At first, Cece is devastated she has to wear such an enormous piece of equipment. This advancement makes understanding classes so much easier, but Cece’s experience as an oddity when all she wants to do is fit in comes across loud and clear. When Cece’s crush learns about the benefits of her “super hearing” device (Cece can hear the teacher wherever she is in the building and whatever she’s doing), she…

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The Fourteenth Goldfish

After reading The Terrible Two Get Worse, the second in the series by authors Jory John and Mac Barnett with their signature witty and whimsical illustrations, I offered The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm to the class. In the front row: “What, no pictures?” After reading period, the same student exclaimed, “It’s so descriptive!” True. Holm’s story captivated my class with a well-traveled tale of an elder person in a much younger body. In this novel, 11 year-old Ellie lives with her mom, a drama teacher. Ellie’s parents are divorced, but remain friendly. The dad is an actor, traveling in the Midwest with a production of Les Miserables for much of the book. Soon, Ellie’s maternal grandfather moves in after an arrest. Melvin Sagarsky is a scientist who’s discovered a way to turn back time; he’s a grumpy and opinionated 76 year-old man residing in a 13 year-old body—HIS body. Melvin has two PhDs and is hoping for a Nobel for his discovery of the serum he’s dubbed T.melvinus. Melvin attends middle school with Ellie. His go-to outfit consists of polyester pants, practical shoes, and button down shirt. He gets detention and naps at the Halloween dance. There’s more than a sprinkling of science throughout the book, including Melvin educating Ellie about Marie Curie, Jonas Salk, Louis Pasteur, and Robert Oppenheimer. Ellie takes it all in. She navigates middle school with nervousness and self-doubt because a longstanding friendship has morphed into something less predictable. She rides the waves of…

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