Review: The Tale of Despereaux

The Tale of DespereauxThe Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Adventure, passion, love, devotion, bravery, tragedy and excitement are the stuff of this story. It does not matter that our knight in shining armor is a romantic mouse named Despereaux Tilling and his love is for a lovely princess named Pea. We cheer for him and cry with him and, along with his comrades, go on a quest that takes us to dark dungeons, castle walls, and love – pure and blind. Destiny has a lot in store for this hero and readers will not be able to put it down once they set off. Will he get the girl? Will the other characters find what they seek? Will they survive the dangers and perils of their quest together? Only one way to find out – and author Kate DiCamillo does an excellent job of motivating readers to turn the page.

Candlewick Press (2008)

ISBN 9780763625290

Quantitative: Lexile Level: 670; ATOS 4.7

Qualitative: Middle Grades (4-8)

Common Core Standards: RL.6.2, RL.6.3

Additional/Digital Content:

Awards: Newbery Medal (2004)


A brave mouse, a princess who needs saving, an evil rat and other characters weave a tale that is treacherous and heartwarming at the same time. Our hero Despereaux learns that “stories are light” and readers will find this story very bright!


Review: American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese  American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Mac Millan Publishers – First Second (2006)

ISBN 9781596431522

Price: $12.00

This graphic novel is an intriguing thing to consume. It is actually three seemingly unrelated stories woven together into a tale of the struggle for identity, acceptance, honor, and heritage from very different Chinese experiences and perspectives. It is one part modern fable, one part coming of age story and one part identity crisis. Gene Luen Yang has set the bar high for what a graphic novel can be: smart and visually provoking in the same way words on a page can be if they are arranged well. You may think you know what to expect but you don’t; if you think you got the whole story, you’re wrong. Read it again!

Quantitative: Lexile Level: 530 (Graphic Novel); ATOS 3.3

Qualitative: Middle/Upper Grades (7-10). Mature themes and some graphic depictions may not be appropriate for younger readers.

Content Area: Social Science – Chinese-American

Common Core Standards: RL.9-10.2, RL.9-10.3, RL.9-10.5, 

Additional/Digital Content:

Author resource from Kennedy Center:

Awards: National Book Award Nominee for Young People’s Literature (2006), Printz Award (2007), ALA’s Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults (2007), James Cook Book Award Nominee (2007), Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards for Best Graphic Album – New (2007) .


Three stories, one Chinese, one American, the third a struggle between the two cultures to find meaning in identity. A graphic novel that clashes cultures together and in the end, fuses them into one life story.

Personal Note: This is a graphic novel that can be used in a variety of settings with upper-middle grade classes. It is suitable not only for grade-level readers, but also has great appeal for struggling readers as well as advanced readers. A complex graphic novel can be a valuable  differentiation tool and this book is a great example.

Review: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia TateThe Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly

In this story, we meet Calpurnia Tate, or “Callie” as she is known in her family. At 11 years old, Callie finds herself more interested in the world outside the house than the one inside and after one of her many adventurous explorations of the outside world, happens to discover that her strange and aloof grandfather, who lives out back behind the house, shares her fascination with the natural world and the unusual creatures who live in it. When Callie’s investigations bring her to a conclusion as to why the yellow grasshoppers are more numerous and much larger than the green ones in the surrounding fields, she must overcome the social restrictions of 1899 Texas to bring her scientific findings to the attention of the one society that might actually value them. Natural selection and Darwin’s theories are discussed and examined to help readers understand how Callie comes to her own conclusions in the story.

Henry Holt & Co. (BYR) (2009)

ISBN 9780805088410

Price: $12.00

Quantitative: Lexile Level: 830; ATOS 5.3

Qualitative: A story for Low/Middle Grades (4-8). historical context and themes involve family dynamics and the historic role of women and girls in the U.S. The science described and incorporation of historical figures woven into the story make it fun and authentic.

Content Area: English; Science – Method; Evolution

Common Core Standards: RL.5.1, RL.5.3, RL.6.3, RL.6.6

Additional/Digital Content:  Neo K-12 resources and media:

Literary Awards: Newbery Honor (2010), Bank Street College of Education Josette Frank Award (2010), Audie Award for Children’s for Ages 8-12 (2011), Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee (2011), IRA Children’s and Young Adult’s Book Award for Intermediate–Fiction (2010)

Annotation: Can one girl’s curiosity about the wonders of the natural world around her, fueled by the eccentric and sometimes obsessive musings of her oddball grandfather, really mean anything to the scientists of her time? Can one little girl really make any difference? Calpurnia Tate learns that evolution takes on many forms, whether through natural selection or personal growth and experience, the world around us is always changing and it is better to be part of it than turn a blind eye.

Review: Olive’s Ocean

Olive's Ocean

Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes


Martha and Olive were not really friends – not the way real friends should be if you are in middle school. Olive hardly knew who Martha was. Until Martha is hit by a car while riding her bike home from school. Martha’s mother brings Olive something that makes her realize that perhaps in Martha’s mind, they were friends. Olive struggles with her own feelings about what this means in her relationships in the present – and what it meant to Martha who is part of the past. Olive’s usual life, full of normal and ordinary moments, is suddenly cast in a different light and although she is ready to spend her summer once again in the waves off Cape Cod, she cannot escape the invisible presence of the dead girl. Not even blossoming romance on the Cape can pull Olive from her emotional ocean.

This is a very interesting story in the way Henkes brings Olive’s struggle to deal with the death of a classmate and her own guilt that she may have wasted the chance to have a real friend. It is not a ghost story but young readers will feel Martha there in the pages.

Greenwillow Books (2001)

ISBN 9780060535452

Price: $7.00

Quantitative: Lexile Level: 680; ATOS 4.7

Qualitative: Middle Grades (4-8)

Common Core Standards: RL.5.3, RL.5.4, RL.5.6, RL.5.9

Literary A wards: Newbery Honor (2004)

Annotation: When someone’s memory haunts you, it feels like a ghost is walking with you, speaking to you, questioning you. Life is like an ocean and emotions can feel like waves. This story brings to life the impact of a school mate’s death for one young girl who struggles to understand the nature of her own life.

Personal Note: Kevin Henkes is one of my favorite authors and his works range from picture books for very young readers up to wonderful stories for middle grade readers, such as Olive’s Ocean. His series with Lilly (Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse) and Chrysanthemum are wonderful for read alouds with lower grades. Kevin Henkes’ latest is The Year of Billy Miller (Greenwill Books, 2013). Check it out!


Review: Flipped

FlippedFlipped by Wendelin Van Draanen

Random House (2001)

ISBN 9780375825446

A romantic comedy of eighth grade awkwardness and tragedy, this story is boy-meets-girl-girl-meets-boy-both-miss-bus. The alternating voices of the two main characters here is terrific – bringing readers in and out of their comfort zone as we suffer through the missed opportunities, poor word choices, shy moments and general middle school social stumbling that these two try to overcome. Who you are and who you want to be are questions every middle school student asks but only a middle schooler would think there was any sort of answer. This story is heart warming and hopeful as this young couple learn to see each other, and themselves, for who they are below the surface.

Quantitative: Lexile Level: 720; ATOS 4.8

Qualitative: Upper Grades (9-12)

Content Area: English

Common Core Standards: RL.9-10.3; RL.11-12.3

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Review: Dreamland

DreamlandDreamland by Sarah Dessen

Penguin Books (2000)

ISBN 9780142401750

The story of misguided love and the spiral of abusive teen relationships, this story explores the uncontrollable cycle of abuse that so many teens encounter in their early relationships. Our narrator, Caitlin, is 16 and after her sister runs away, Caitlin is desperate to make some big changes in her own life at home. when she meets the mysterious and seductive boy with the dark green eyes, she knows he is trouble but she cannot resist the temptation to try a little danger for a change. She does not realize he may be a danger to her until it is too late for her to stop her feelings from growing.

This story is a good one for teens but also parents of teens, as it explores a very difficult and often invisible topic in a way that makes it safe for discussions and consideration when it is only hypothetical.

Quantitative: Lexile Level: 920; ATOS 5.8

Qualitative: Upper Grades (9-12)

Content Area: English; Health – Abusive Relationships/Teens

Common Core Standards:

Additional/Digital Content: Teen Health:

Teens Against Abusive Relationships:

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Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Penguin Books (2005)

ISBN 9780141012698

First and foremost, this is the story of a nine-year-old boy named Oskar. But it is much more than that. It is the story of a great void – a void as vast as the hole left on 9/11 in Manhattan where the Twin Towers once stood. The void in Oskar’s life,  the void in his mother’s life, in his grandparents’ lives, and many of the lives of the many strangers that  Oskar meets in his journey to find the lock that goes with his father’s key. The key is Oskar’s only piece of his father left behind for him to fill his void and he is relentless in his search for the possible owner of the matching lock, using every bit of cunning his father ever taught him as he explores the five Burroughs of New York. Oskar’s search takes him deeper into his own family as well as the far reaches of the city, and in his search for deeper understanding of his father, he also unravels the mysteries of his grandfather and the void there.

This is the story of a boy who hides in the closet, dreams of ways to save the world from bad things, plays the tambourine to stay calm, punishes himself when he thinks no one else will, and keeps his void hidden and his quest secret (so he thinks) in order to protect those he loves. The void left by the events of 9/11, whether deep or distant for readers, will resonate in this story. With humor as well as gravity, we walk in the shoes of one boy learning to deal with his void and gain an understanding of the process of healing that is the human spirit.

Quantitative: Lexile Level: 940; ATOS 4.7

Qualitative: Upper Grades (9-12) and Adult. This book is full of nuances and subtle references that are suitable for mature readers. Familiarity with historical events in Europe as well as some understanding of the geography of City of New York is helpful but not necessary. The alternating voices of Oskar and his grandparents can also be challenge but this story is engrossing and suitable for readers who are willing to tackle it.

Content Area: English; Social Sciences – U.S. History – 9/11

Common Core Standards: RL.11-12.1 – RL.11-12.10

Awards: ALA Notable/Best Books;

Recommended Reading: ALA Outstanding Books for the College Bound

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