Category: Book Reviews

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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Down to Earth & the Greater Good Science Center

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)

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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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New Kid

I was so excited to take a deep dive into middle grade literature as I prepared for my new teaching role at NCS. Jerry Craft’s graphic novel, New Kid, won both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King award in 2020. After giving it a quick read, I then went back through, spending more time with Jordan Banks as he navigates seventh grade in a new private school. There are stark differences between his neighborhood and the one where his new school is located. Within the first few pages, author/artist Craft spells it out while the parents review the school’s website: there’s not much diversity and there’s a long list of courses and curriculum offerings that simply aren’t available at the local public school.  Jordan really wants to go to art school, but acquiesces and heads off to Riverdale Academy Day School or RAD. He learns all about legacy families and its impact on his friend Liam, the divisive term Oreo shows up in a large panel, and there’s no shortage of microaggressions, bullying, prejudice, and code-switching in this story. While this book is for young people, there are plenty of important messages for adults, too.  There’s so much to enjoy and engage with in this original and complex book.  I loved the build up to puppet-wearing Alexandra’s reveal and how Jordan provided her with such kindness. That panel and dialogue was a special part of the book for me, capturing the awkwardness of young kids while also showcasing…

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People who climb all 46 High Peaks – mountains over 4,000 feet –  in the Adirondacks are called 46ers. While we do a fair amount of hiking at North Country School, we also do a ton of reading. NCS’s reading incentive program was developed to encourage students and staff to become Literary 46ers. While I know there’s some controversy about extrinsic rewards for reading, the Title Trek Program truly builds a community of readers (and writers). To become a Literary 46er, participants must read a wide variety of books and complete a Title Trek for each one. The Trek must include both a summary and reflection. Yes, sort of a glorified book report; however, I’ve witnessed other creative ways to complete the process – detailed sketches presented during a lunch council, video book trailers or skits, mixed media artwork, and so on. I started Title Trekking, logging 11 titles, before setting the goal aside for a decade. Once I became an ELA teacher, I revisited the program with full force; I completed my final 35 Treks in December 2020. I shared the audiobook version of Chirp with students this fall and once I published the following review, I used it in class to show them how to write a book review/Title Trek.  Middle Grade Book, Chirp, is a #MeToo Movement Book for the Younger Crowd Chirp, the latest work by North Country author Kate Messner, is a children’s chapter book that explores the topic of sexual harassment in an age-appropriate…

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