The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Here is the author’s website which includes an enthralling video book trailer and information about the real Ivan. There are other fan-made trailers available on YouTube.

Discussion guide is available for download on the Harper Collins publisher website.

Summary: (from Ivan is an easygoing gorilla. Living at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, he has grown accustomed to humans watching him through the glass walls of his domain. He rarely misses his life in the jungle. In fact, he hardly ever thinks about it at all.

Instead, Ivan thinks about TV shows he’s seen and about his friends Stella, an elderly elephant, and Bob, a stray dog. But mostly Ivan thinks about art and how to capture the taste of a mango or the sound of leaves with color and a well-placed line.

Then he meets Ruby, a baby elephant taken from her family, and she makes Ivan see their home—and his own art—through new eyes. When Ruby arrives, change comes with her, and it’s up to Ivan to make it a change for the better.

Katherine Applegate blends humor and poignancy to create Ivan’s unforgettable first-person narration in a story of friendship, art, and hope


Personal Reaction: I loved it. It was extremely moving. (I did hope for more illustrations, they were so well done. Reminded me again of Flawed Dogs by Breathed or The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by DiCamillo). Very simple chapter breaks so you can read as much or as little as you want each day. Try knuckle walking for five minutes!

Any Cautions: Reading aloud to kids younger than 4th grade might cause distress for the death involved and brief discussion & display of cruelty to circus animals, so use your judgment as to age sensitivity.

Curriculum or discussion topics: Animal rights/welfare; responsibility for caring for your pets; here’s an interesting article about animal artists / art – this is a good time to showcase your drawing instruction books (like Draw 50 Animals  by Ames); discussion of elements of a story – how the simplest of illustrations move stories along.

Connections to other books: Saving Lilly by Peg Kehret, Hurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby (this one contains fearful scenes of animal testing); Jackie’s Wild Seattle by Hobbs; nonfiction about zoos – I don’t know of anything for kids grades 4-6, but there might be some, short nonfiction on topics like zoo enclosures, zoo doctors, etc.; books like Amazing Gorillas and Elephants.

Items to display with book: Crayons, markers, paints and paper; stuffed gorilla, small dog and elephant; photos of the real Ivan or a silverback gorilla, reproductions of Ivan billboard signs

Food items connected to story: Bananas, carrots, Pepsi, apples, oranges, cake with chocolate frosting, yogurt raisins (animal fare);  soft pretzels, popcorn, hotdogs, pink cotton candy, lemonade, ice cream cones (circus fare) *You could be gross and serve me-ball meatballs!


Divergent by Veronica Roth

Here’s the author’s website (which includes a link about half way down on the right if you’d like to read the first 100 pages of the book) The book video trailer is posted by the publisher and there are several fan-made videos and an author interview online as well.

Summary: (from In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue–Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is–she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are–and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves . . . or it might destroy her.

Personal Reaction: My 12yo nephew and I had great discussions trying to decide which faction we would want to join and why! These conversations took place after I had finished the book, but it could also have been fun to compare choices made at the same time as the day of choosing in the book and then if you would change your mind when the book is over.

Any Cautions: explicit violence in the Dauntless faction (similar to The Hunger Games by Collins)

Curriculum or discussion topics: utopia/dystopia scenarios; character traits – esp. courage/bravery versus recklessness

Connections to other books: Highly reminiscent of The Giver by Lowry and Matched by Condie, dystopias where a certain day of the year brings such change and things are never what they seem. Have a book on display that would appeal to someone in each faction along with the realia below: (BASIC EXAMPLES) Dauntless – Striking, Grappling, and Ground Fighting, Erudite – How Things Work Encyclopedia, Abnegation – Conflict Resolution Smarts: How to Communicate, Negotiate, Compromise, and More, Candor – The First Honest Book about Lies, Amity – Meditation

Items to display with book: (something to represent each faction) Dauntless – rubber knife, Abnegation – grey robe or mirror with grey cloth over it, Erudite – brain model, Candor – lie detector or test, Amity – pastoral scene (gardening, painting, etc.)

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.

Sky Memories by Pat Brisson


Original date reviewed: 2/18/03

Summary: Emily’s mom is diagnosed with cancer. The book follows their last year together and the positive way they try to make each moment precious through shared memories of different sky scenes. Emily’s aunt moves in to care for both of them and then takes over as Emily’s guardian after her mom dies.

Personal Reaction: I cried!! I don’t even know anyone with cancer, but I gave it to my media clerk whose mother died two years ago and she sobbed! It is a poignant and touching look at how the characters shared their dwindling time together.  UPDATE TO THIS REVIEW: My husband was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma in 2010 and is a survivor, my friend’s mother has survived breast cancer. Things changed since 2003, didn’t they?

Any Cautions:  You’ll have to be aware of whether your students have/had a family member with cancer or other terminal illness. This will affect them deeply.

Points for discussion with children:  terminal illness, cancer, valuing family and time spent together

Possible classroom uses: This might be a good item to select whenever a school “Pasta for Pennies” (Leukemia and Lymphoma Society) or “Relay for Life” (American Cancer Society) event is occurring. It’s short and won’t take more than a day or two to cover. It can remind everyone how precious life is.

Connections to other books: Any cancer or terminal illness related book should be made available for those who need to bond with “others out there” who have had this experience. Nonfiction:  Have pamphlets/information available on support groups and online resources for cancer support groups. Coping When Someone in Your Family Has Cancer by Rocha. The Power of a Wish by Spizman about the Make-a-Wish Foundation.  Fiction: Lurlene McDaniel has a series that deals with teens’ terminal illnesses. Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer is excellent; A Walk to Remember by Sparks, Kira-Kira by Kadohata, and Drums, Girls, And Dangerous Pie by Sonnenblick (this one made me laugh). YA/Adult – Before I Die by Downham (explicit).

Realia: watercolor paintings or other depictions of sky scenes, purple sequined baseball cap, forsythia flowers

Food items connected to story: None

Lament by Maggie Stiefvater

Author’s website with a cool playlist!            No video book trailer found, though there are a few long book review trailers. There was one fan made trailer for the sequel, Ballad.

Summary: A dark faerie fantasy: 16yo musical prodigy Dierdre falls for Luke. At the same time, she begins to get the “sight” and is able to glimpse the faerie realm – only, the faeries aren’t nice. The Queen of the Faeries have sent Luke to kill her, and if he won’t do it then there are several other characters waiting around to take the job.

Personal Reaction: Though typical teenage romance-ish, things get passionate but there’s only one use of the F-word. I think the author meant it to come as a shock (and it DOES) to show how not-nice the faeries can be. Violence ensues, but I appreciated the mob ending. This book wasn’t necessarily my style, but I think it’ll find a YA following.

Connections to other books: books on faerie lore or Irish/Celtic folklore, Thomas Rhymer, Daoine Sidhe (see primary and secondary sources here); Faerie Wars by Brennan, Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale by Black, The Faerie Path by Jones, Wicked Lovely by Marr, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare

Items to display with book: sheet music, flute, harp (if your school has one); white dove in a gold cage, stuffed valentine heart, illustration of The Hunter or a hound figurine (as many as you can find;, things made of iron: nails, rings, etc.; green slime in a jar (use food coloring and Crisco?), photo of a fairy ring

Food items connected to story: anything BBQ, esp. pulled pork sandwiches, fries and sweet tea; perfect ice cream sundaes

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from Flux Books in a Twitter contest, but was not asked for anything in return.