Girl in the Blue Coat

Girl in the Blue Coat

First Lines: A long time before Bas died, we had a pretend argument about whose fault it was that he’d fallen in love with me. It’s your fault, he told me. Because you’re lovable. I told him he was wrong. That it was lazy to blame his falling in love on me. Irresponsible, really.

Ok, I’m pretty sure this is the last of the Holocaust books my students are reading that I hadn’t read before. I’d heard really good things about this one from other teachers who use it in class, so I was kind of excited. I was even more so when I discovered that Hesse writes a lot of other historical fictions from this time period.

It’s Amsterdam in 1943, so it almost makes sense that Hanneke spends her time buying and delivering goods from the black market to paying customers. A girl has to be able to support her family, you know, even if her parents don’t know exactly where the money comes from. Hanneke also likes to think of her actions as simple rebellion against the Nazis, especially considering her boyfriend was killed on the Dutch front lines during the invasion. On a routine delivery, a client asks Hanneke for help: she wants Hanneke to find the Jewish teenager she was hiding who has vanished from her hiding place. Hanneke initially wants nothing to do with the dangerous task, but she’s ultimately drawn into the web of mysteries and revelations about life within her own city. Hanneke now understands the true horror of what the Nazis are doing to her people–and she’s willing to make sacrifices to make a desperate stand.

Wowsers.

I had the ability to read large chunks of this at one time and that made it so much easier to sink into the world it created. I knew some bits about Amsterdam at this time period thanks to studying Anne Frank. But it was really fascinating to see the city from another perspective in the same time period. To match up what Anne talks about with what Hanneke sees and experiences was so fascinating.

The story bills itself as a mystery, and it does have elements of that for sure, but it’s not a super suspenseful mystery. It’s more like the mystery is part of the plot, but the other part is Hanneke discovering just how dark Amsterdam has gotten beneath her notice. She’s looking for Mirjam while also learning about the Jewish experience in the city. So in that way, it mashes historical fiction with the mystery elements in a way that make it more about the historical fiction. Searching for Mirjam just drives the plot.

I thought there were some very interesting, very broken characters in this that made this hard to put down. Hanneke is just trying to mind her own business and get through the war after her boyfriend Bas died. But she’s also deeply troubled by what she’s learning and she wants to do something about it…but also keep her parents safe. It’s a delicate balance. And she makes some mistakes, hurts a few relationships along the way. I liked that she was imperfect.

This was touching and interesting and really gave me a lot to think about.

Classroom Novels: What Reading Novels Looks Like in My Classroom

Hey guys! I know this maybe sounds a little too teacher-y for some of you, but I promise this is going to be less about how I teach and more about what my students think of the novels they chose.

See, when we do our Holocaust novels, they have options. We have over a dozen books for them to choose from (though I limited my classroom to 12, for simplicity and to keep from overwhelming them). As most of us know, when we can pick our books, we’re more engaged.

Most of my kids are not “readers” like you or me. At roughly 14 years old, most of them have read less than 20 books in their entire lives. (This still hurts me.) Some brag about never having finished a book.

Knowing all of this, I try to spice up my Holocaust novels, which are already high-interest just due to the content.

The Choosing Process

In order to choose their books, I have a PowerPoint with the book jacket synopsis on the screen along with the cover and the number of pages in the book. (That matters to them a lot.) I talk through what the book is about as well as what I thought of the book when I read it, since I’ve read all of them at some point.

This year, they wrote down their top 3 choices on an index card and gave it back to me so I could get them one of those books. Most of the time, I was able to go with the first choice, though I sometimes had to go all the way down to the 3rd choice due to availability of certain novels.

Immediately, even before handing the books out, I had some students who have rarely ever talked to me coming up to ask me if I was able to give them their first choice or not.

Reading

After handing the books out, I gave students multiple class days to just read, knowing that a number of them wouldn’t read outside of class. Besides, reading in class meant I could answer any questions they had. And some kids weren’t happy with their choices and wanted to change to something else, especially after hearing some of their friends rave about certain books.

I’m not kidding, you guys, my classroom is usually so quiet you can hear a pin drop. They’re excited to read. I’ve been sprinkling in “history days” to talk about stuff related to their stories (background on Auschwitz, how Hitler rose to power, etc.) and they clearly want me to stop talking so they can read. It’s actually really funny for me.

But they are so engaged. When I did my latest history day, they were making connections back to their novels. Some are coming back to me to read a second or third novel from my collection because they’re so interested. Even more amazing, they aren’t losing their books as often. Normally I’m constantly finding forgotten novels all over the school, but this isn’t the case this time.

So What Do They Like?

On a recent homework assignment, I asked students to tell me if they liked their book or not and to be honest–they weren’t going to hurt my feelings. I use this for research, but I think it’s worth pointing out to you guys which books are favored.

  • Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman–TONS of kids wanted to read this book because Hitler is a character in the book and they enjoy mysteries. I only had 3 copies, but those that are reading it seem to be enjoying it. One girl really got into it but the other two seem a bit more ambivalent.
  • The Boy at the Top of the Mountain by John Boyne–this was another that tons of kids wanted because, again, Hitler is a character. I liked this book, but the kids reading it don’t seem overly impressed. They think the beginning is slow, which is true. But it’s hurting their enjoyment.
  • The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne–I hate this book, but most of the kids reading this one seem to like it fine. They mostly know the movie, so it’s sort of a comparison situation, but they also like Bruno’s friendship with Smuel. They are struggling to understand some of Bruno’s mishearings, though.
  • Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys–while not the Holocaust, it’s similar enough we group it with this. And this one is a big hit. I have boys and girls reading this and they all love it. It’s different and interesting and suspenseful. I’ve had multiple girls asking if there’s a sequel. I was delighted to tell them about Salt to the Sea. One girl LIT UP.
  • Night by Elie Wiesel–one of three nonfiction options, this is a big hit because it’s the shortest book. Reviews are mixed. Some kids love it because it doesn’t sugarcoat history and it feels real to them. Others find it too horrifying or just really slow and aimless.
  • Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse–this is my first year offering this one, but the girls reading it seem to be enjoying it. They like the mystery and the danger of it.
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak–a favorite of mine, I was really excited for some of my devoted readers to read this. Most of them really enjoyed this. They’ve commented about how well they remember it, despite finishing it over a week ago in some cases. Only one boy thinks this story is really slow and he can’t get into it.
  • Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott–this story in verse is a HUGE HIT with the girls who chose it. They got really into the story and they talked about how they aren’t normally readers but this was great. One specifically talked about how happy she was to have chosen this one.
  • The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen–this time travel story is hit and miss. No one seems to all-out hate it, but no one seems to be absolutely loving it either. Some are enjoying how she knows what their futures hold, but some are bored by the slow start. Still, they all seem to be interested in the plot.
  • Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz–Most of my students are familiar with Alan Gratz, so some chose this because they liked his other books. Most reading this are very into the action and seeing how Yanek survives 10 concentration camps.
  • I Have Lived a Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson–this nonfiction book maybe isn’t a favorite with the few reading it, but a couple have mentioned that they learned a lot from it. A lot of these kids like seeing a nonfiction story on this topic, so it worked for them.

(Some of you may have noticed there are only 11 books here. That’s because no one chose the 12th option.)

The Competition

I have two boys in my classes who are competing to read all twelve books in 2 weeks. (I lovingly refer to them as dorks because…well, that’s what they are in this moment.) They have created a Google spreadsheet in order to track their progress and constantly see which of them is in the lead. One boy has a slight edge at the moment because he was able to get a book from me after school once. Almost every day, they come up to me wanting to borrow one or two books to try to outdo the other one. A few books, they have to get from the library.

But this is ridiculously funny to me. They come up to me at least once a day and tell me that they finished another book. They also let me have access to their spreadsheet so I can see their progress. Their competitive spirit is fierce. And they both are actually reading the books–one boy had to assure me today that he wasn’t skimming the books, that he actually absorbed the information.

*****

This unit is so much fun for me, seeing this kind of engagement. Students frequently tell me they aren’t readers but they couldn’t put their book down. It makes my heart happy to hear things like this.

Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover (Rules of Scoundrels, #4)

Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover (The Rules of Scoundrels, #4)

First Lines: “I love you.” Three strange, small words that held so much power. Not that Lady Georgiana Pearson–daughter of one duke and sister to another, child of honor and duty and pristine presentation, and perfectly bred female of the ton–had ever heard them. Aristocrats did not love.

I have to tread carefully on this one because there are some series spoilers involved with this book, so I’m going to do my best to keep this book review spoiler free. Let’s see if that happens.

Lady Georgiana, sister of a duke, was ruined before her first season in the worst kind of scandal. But if the ton knew the truth, they would die of shock. Because Lady Georgiana isn’t just ruined–she helps to ruin others. And her secrets have been hers and no one else’s for years. Until Duncan West starts poking around. Brilliant and determined, Duncan wants to know how this gorgeous woman is tied up in so much London darkness. He knows she’s hiding things, but what? He vows to uncover all her secrets, something that threatens everything Georgiana holds close…

This one is so interesting, I swear. Georgiana is sassy and clever, a combination I really like. She’s vastly different from the other heroines in this series and I love that she makes such a statement with her presence.

The writing in this book truly reveals how masterful Sarah MacLean is. I can’t tell you why because that would be a spoiler, but suffice it to say loose ends get tied up in this book and it is absolutely masterful. So much fun and it makes the plot so much more suspenseful.

What’s also a lot of fun for me with this book is that MacLean pulls in characters from a previous series into this one. She tends to do that, carrying characters over and making it all feel like one giant continuation of the same series. This one is more overt than it sometimes is, since Georgiana is the younger sister of a previous series’s hero, but still.

I really like how brilliant both main characters are. I think it makes them equally matched for the hijinks they get into and that’s what really propels the plot forward. It’s a chess match between the two of them.

No Good Duke Goes Unpunished (Rules of Scoundrels, #3)

No Good Duke Goes Unpunished (The Rules of Scoundrels, #3)

First Lines: There is beauty in the moment when flesh meets bone. It is born of the violent crunch of knuckles against jaw, and the deep thud of fist against abdomen, and the hollow grunt that echoes from the chest of a man in the split second before his defeat.

We’re over halfway through my reviews for this series! This cover is…unfortunately green, though. Like, does anyone actually like that shade of green that heavily? Who thought that was a good idea? It looks like Elphaba threw up on it.

Temple doesn’t remember the night he earned the moniker the “Killer Duke.” He doesn’t remember murdering Mara Lowe on the eve of her wedding. For the last twelve years, he’s been beyond redemption and fighting his way through the darkest parts of London. Mara never meant to return to London society, but when her brother falls into massive debt at Temple’s gaming hell, she has no choice but to try to convince Temple to cancel the debt if she’ll reveal he’s no killer. But Mara is more than she seems and Temple has a hard time despising the woman for her choices…in fact, he might not hate her at all…

I said the previous book in this series felt more character-driven; well, this one is the opposite in many ways. Given the history between Mara and Temple and both of their goals, this book focuses much more on their struggles and the obstacles they encounter along the way. And the plot kept me on my toes. It never quite went where I thought it would.

And the characters are just as engrossing as any others in this series. Temple is a fighter, a real mountain of a man who has used his fists more than his words these past twelve years. He’s hardened his muscles, but not his heart. Mara is clever and practical. She knows revealing that she’s alive will ruin the life she’s created for herself, but she hasn’t a choice, really. She’s also someone you don’t want to mess with, as she can be brutal when necessary. When I first started this book, I thought there was absolutely no way a romance could blossom between these two, but it works. I don’t know how, but it does.

It’s wonderfully written and pulls you in quickly. While Temple and Mara aren’t my favorite couple in this series, this book is one of the best written.

Paper Hearts

Paper Hearts

First Lines: Through the village/once loved./Eyes lowered/not shamed/footsteps steady/not faster/or slower/than before.

A few days ago, I talked about those Holocaust books for my students. This is another one recently added to our list. I got it free from Scholastic years ago, but I never was inclined to read it. But I did always think it was interesting this Holocaust story was written in verse.

Survival. Friendship. Defiance. Things Fania and Zlatka found in Auschwitz. These two teenagers lost so much along the way until they found each other. They looked out for each other, protected each other as much as possible. And, in the ultimate act of defiance, Zlatka made Fania a birthday card in Auschwitz: a purple heart signed by a number of their other friends, with wishes for the future. Something as simple as a card could mean death for these girls, which made Fania treasure it all the more. Based on a true story.

I figured this would be a fast read, being written in verse.

And it was. I was pretty quickly pulled into Zlatka’s story, but I had a little trouble with Fania’s. In part, at least, I think that’s because it has hard to remember who was the narrator. The verses are written in a similar style no matter who the narrator is. And the girls tended to have very similar perspectives. I just generally assumed the narrator was Zlatka, even when I knew it wasn’t. It’s weird to switch narrators in a verse novel like that. I’ve seen it done before, but the voices were very clearly different.

But the story, especially knowing it’s based on true events, is special. Zlatka and Fania are both trying to be brave and learn how to adapt to their new situation, despite losing their families one way or another. The depictions of Auschwitz fit well with what I already know about the camp and this did have the feel of being meticulously researched. I appreciated that.

This story is hopeful and doesn’t get too dark, despite the subject matter. That doesn’t mean it goes down easy (the girls still have to deal with a lot of death, hardships, and brutality), but it also makes those small moments of hope and kindness they experienced stand out more. I didn’t walk out of this book hating humanity like I can sometimes in other Holocaust books. This actually more or less did the opposite–because it made sure to highlight those moments of kindness coming from expected and unexpected places.

One Good Earl Deserves a Lover (Rules of Scoundrels, #2)

One Good Earl Deserves a Lover (The Rules of Scoundrels, #2)

First Lines: There were benefits to being the second son. Indeed, if there was one truth in society it was this: Rake, rogue, or scoundrel–an heir required reformation.

Ok, so like I said the other day, I kind of binge-read this series again. I mean, like a book a day. We’re going to take this opportunity to catch up on these reviews/musings because why not? Seriously, Sarah MacLean is amazing.

Lady Phillipa Marbury has always been…odd. This glasses-wearing fourth daughter of a double Marquess has always been more interested in science than having a season. Now nearly engaged, Pippa wants to explore the scandalous side of London that she hasn’t seen before–and will hopefully answer some of her questions about the physical side of marriage. And she knows the perfect person to talk to is one of the Fallen Angel’s owners, a man known only as Cross. Of course, Pippa has done her research and Cross is perfect: she wants a man who has a reputation, an experience of ruination without the repercussions. But Cross…well, it’s going to take everything he has to resist Pippa.

One trope that I’ve always enjoyed in a good romance novel is the “nerdy” girl. (Perhaps because I relate to it so well?) It makes for a very entertaining read. Pippa is very scientific and, because of her fascination with rocks and flora rather than society, she’s more than a little socially awkward. She doesn’t always realize that what she’s saying or doing is outside of society’s norms. Like propositioning Cross. She thinks it’s methodical and sensible because she has a goal and this is how she reaches it. This makes Pippa unpredictable and fun to read about.

I don’t think this book is as plot-driven as the first one. While it does have a good plot (revolving around Cross’s past and Pippa’s engagement), what I remember most about this book is the characters. This is more driven by the characters and their personalities and quirks. It feels more seamless and real that way, I guess. You really know who they are by the end.

The wit and banter in this book are excellent. I mean, I giggle so much in the opening chapters of this book because Pippa is just so ridiculous in the best way. She’s so interesting and brave and reckless that she so easily baffles Cross and keeps him on his toes. I love that.

When I set out to write this review, I really wanted to give it 5 roses because Pippa is one of my favorite leads in this series, but I just don’t think I can. Not that there’s anything wrong with this book, but it just doesn’t punch as hard as some of the other books.