Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson

Here’s the author’s website  which includes a professional book trailer.

Here’s an additional link to the “Meet the Author” video on TeachingBooks.net

Summary: Frannie is a worrier. When her teacher presents a poem with the line “Hope is the thing with feathers,” the line sticks with her. Her mom and brother seem to know exactly what it means. As she puzzles out the process of growing up within a community divided by a highway into black neighborhoods & schools and white neighborhoods & schools, a new white boy arrives in her class. His long brown hair sparks the nickname “Jesus Boy” and Frannie and her best friend Samantha discuss what it would mean if he really was Jesus and why Jesus would want to come to their neighborhood anyway. Jesus Boy becomes a bully’s target but Frannie is hesitant to intervene.

Personal Reaction: Audiobook narrator, Sisi Aisha Johnson, was excellent. I just love Woodson, this book doesn’t disappoint.

Curriculum or discussion topics: Music – “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel is featured in the story with discussion of bridging the gap between the black and white worlds on either side of the highway; bullying; poetry – “Hope is the thing with…” have students select an ending to that thought and describe why or write a poem on a theme of hope

Connections to other books: Books on The 1970s era, Black Panthers, music, etc.; books on Sign Language; poetry by Emily Dickinson and a selection of black poets or teen poets would be good too, like Quiet Storm: Voices of Young Black Poets; other books by JWoodson, especially the Maizon series. Go through your library and pull any book with hope in the title and spread them around!

Items to display with book: Large feather, baby diapers or stork delivery figurine, afro pick with black power fist

Food items connected to story: Rice, Hamburgers, Fried chicken, goulash


The Door of No Return by Sarah Mussi

Door of No Return

original date book read: October 18, 2011

Author’s website, no video book trailer found.

Summary (from author’s site): Zac lives with his grandfather, Pops. When Pops is killed by muggers, Zac is devastated. Dumped with foster parents, then in an orphanage, Zac stumbles from trouble to trouble, but the one thing he hangs on to is Pops’ obsession with their family history and his ambition to go to Ghana in search of a ransom paid by a descendant 200 years earlier, to keep his son from slavery – a ransom stolen by British government agents at the time, which then disappeared. At least, Zac thinks, he can keep faith with Pops by continuing his quest. So Zac wangles his own way to Ghana.

Alone and far from home, he discovers that Pops’ death and everything since is part of a wider plan by some shadowy others, also connected to the lost ransom. In a web of intrigue, deception, betrayal, skulduggery and murder that reaches out of the past to entrap everyone in the present, Zac’s quest culminates in a perilous voyage to the Door of No Return in the walls of the ancient slave fort – through which the slaves were once herded to the boats that would take them across the ocean, on a journey many of them would never survive.

Personal Reaction: British setting will make slang issues a minor stumbling block for American readers. Present day mystery of descendant of Ghanain prince battling to bring evidence of British government participation in slave trading = MI5 vs.  teen! I liked it. I think middle schoolers might find it too long/complicated to hold their interest, but it’s not a content issue. Recommended for hs.


Since I started this blog a year after reading this book, I may have to come back later to finish up this post after I read it again and keep notes on the details…

Curriculum or discussion topics: The slave trade in Ghana

Connections to other books:

Items to display with book: Ghana flag, historical photographs of slave forts

Food items connected to story


Rock Island Line: Conversations Over Chicken and Dumplings by Michelle Dobbs

Rock Island Line: Conversations Over Chicken and Dumplings by Michelle Dobbs

Links: Author’s website  No video trailer found. After reading the book, you might enjoy this audio version of the Rock Island Line song featured in the story by Lead Belly. There are other versions available.

From Wikipedia:

Rock Island Line” is an American blues/folk song first recorded by John Lomax in 1934 as sung by inmates in an Arkansas State Prison, and later popularized by Lead Belly.[1] Many versions have been recorded by other artists, most significantly the world-wide hit version in the mid-1950s by Lonnie Donegan. The song is ostensibly about the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.

Book Summary: Lilly is growing up in 1920’s Illinois in a poor railroad town but a tightly-knit, successful black family. Her innocent childhood with her best friend Lois (also discriminated against, but for being American Indian) contains a touch of comedy as neither girl knows where babies come from and Lilly is determined to buy a baby brother. Lilly grows up and eventually does discover how babies are born and how they die.

Personal Reaction: Because the book encompasses most of Lilly’s lifetime, I cannot say I would recommend it to middle graders due to the adult topics that arise (nothing graphic), but I liked it as a personal choice. I loved the bonfires and the character of Lee. I was shocked at Papa’s confession and the tragedy of Pearl and Maggie.

Curriculum or discussion topics: Racism, personal responsibility, family values. Author has book club discussion questions posted on her website.

Connections to other books: Out Of The Dust and Witness by Hesse, Bud, Not Buddy by Curtis, A Long Way From Chicago by Peck; The Great Depression and World War II by Carlisle, Al Capone’s Chicago by Yancey, maybe a few of those decade chronicles-type books for 20’s and on… like The 1930s from the Great Depression to the Wizard of Oz by Feinstein

Items to display with book: Railroad set or model train, photos of Depression era Illinois, spelling book, big brown dusty oxford school shoes, Jazz or Blues records (on a phonograph if you can score one), bell jar full of pennies, baby doll or diapers

Food items connected to story: Chicken every which way (fried, roasted, sandwiches, soup, potpie, & dumplings); pot luck party foods (lima beans, casseroles, cakes, biscuits) lemonade, etc.

Ship of Souls by Zetta Elliott

author’s website    No video trailer found, but this is an author’s tour of the book’s primary location – it’s really interesting!

Summary: 11/12yo “D” (no one except his mom calls him Dimitri) has had some struggles. Dad is a mysterious, non-existent figure from his past. Mom has recently passed away from breast cancer. D spends a brief time in the foster care system before being taken to live with kindly old Mrs. Martin. But then the crack-addicted baby foster girl comes to live with them and D feels a little overwhelmed. He’s just getting into his new school and is accelerating in math, has made a friend of an older boy named Keem that needs a math tutor, and there’s an awkward friendship with Keem’s crush Nyla. (Both Keem and Nyla seem older than what I guess are 8th grade in the story). Then D finds a possessed bird who wants him to be a “host” for her spirit and go down under Prospect Park in NY to find the souls from the African Burial Ground and help them move on to the next realm.

Personal Reaction: Loved the demon bird cover, but the book was kind of “meh.” There’s a LOT that’s left unexplained, and everything moves too quickly to be satisfying for my taste. I think if this story had been fleshed out more it would have been much better. I did like the brief touch on what being Muslim means for Keem. Since it’s kind of simple, I’d say it would be ok for grades 4-8, but there’s some scary points where D is attacked by inanimate objects, chased by spirits/skeletons, and both D and Nyla are hurt. So maybe just gr 6+ depending on your reader’s sensitivity. One brief mention of “freaks” at school includes those who are attracted to same sex.

Curriculum or discussion topics: African Burial Ground and Battle of Long Island, Hessians; bullying

Connections to other books: Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence  by Joyce Hansen, Long Island’s Military History by Glen Williford,  by The Complete Guidebook to Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens Berenson, maybe even Backyard Birds (Field Guides for Young Naturalists) or Math Doesn’t Suck by McKellar

Items to display with book: stuffed white dove, maps of NYC, photos of Prospect Park and boulder plaque for Battle Pass, historical info about the African Burial Ground and Battle of Long Island in the Revolutionary War, math textbook

Food items connected to story: Pizza, potato chips, hot cocoa, oatmeal with brown sugar

Eighth Grade Superzero by Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich

author’s website includes a video trailer

Summary:  Main character is at an alternative/progressive learning school in NY but still suffers from typical middle school problems. Reggie’s called “Pukey” by most classmates since an unfortunate incident on the first day of school. He’s got an ex-friend who seems intent on making his life as miserable as possible. Reggie writes his own Night Man graphic novels illustrated by his friend Joe C. The girl of his dreams, Mialonie, doesn’t know he’s alive. Reggie’s in a hate-hate relationship with his sister, Monica, and their father has recently lost his job. There’s a lot of realistic questioning that goes on by the kids in his church youth group. When his YG sponsor gets them involved in documenting the stories of some of the residents of the local homeless shelter, Reggie gets emotionally invested in the project. He’s got two really good friends who are as shocked as we are when Reggie makes a surprise announcement that he’s running for class president.

Personal Reaction: Another one that was heavy on the religion, but it just works out. Maybe I’m a closet Christian? “All I want is some positivitiy for Heaven’s sake.” See??? I actually liked this more than Lost Songs by Cooney though it wasn’t as complex with Cooney’s multiple character perspective. I want to nominate this one for SSYRA too. I loved it. Maybe it’s another one of those books where the kids have more high school personalities than middle school, but I was really touched by it and I think the volunteerism displayed here is achievable – especially the thought that if you have community service as a core value of your school motto, then you should get school credit for it.  One of my favorite quotes is, “I need a few more points in my life GPA.”

Curriculum or discussion topics: positive actions (character counts), school elections, volunteerism efforts, homeless students, bullying

Connections to other books: graphic novels (both DC and Marvel – Spawn, Lobo, Luke Cage, Black Thunder, Agent 355) ; a Bible or teen & religion titles;  self-help books like Advance Your Swagger: How to Use Manners, Confidence, and Style to Get Ahead by Bentley, A Raisin in the Sun by Hansberry, Quiet Storm: Voices of Young Black Poets  and other black poets & collections; books on how to write & illustrate your own graphic novels or examples of graphic novels like Super Diaper Baby by Pilkey or especially those with black characters like Icon or Static Shock (both by McDuffie) or Firestorm by Moore.

Items to display with book: Dora the Explorer sneakers, Bob Marley album, brochure/info about local homeless shelter, vote posters for school election, fake vomit. (Would it be wrong to include a Very Special Binder?)

Food items connected to story: (Jamaican foods as well as cafeteria foods) breadfruit, pizza w/anchovies, garlic & onion potato chips, tuna tacos, Juiced! (any bottles of fruit juice with weird facts under the cap – like HonestTea or Snapple?), mini-candy bars, organic apple broccoli muffins, oxtail and stew peas, callaloo, etc.