The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin by Josh Berk

Here’s the author’s website, but I did not find any book trailers.This is a fan-made video trailer.

Summary from Being a hefty, deaf newcomer almost makes Will Halpin the least popular guy at Coaler High. But when he befriends the only guy less popular than him, the dork-namic duo has the smarts and guts to figure out who knocked off the star quarterback. Will can’t hear what’s going on, but he’s a great observer. So, who did it? And why does that guy talk to his fingers? And will the beautiful girl ever notice him? (Okay, so Will’s interested in more than just murder . . .)

Those who prefer their heroes to be not-so-usual and with a side of wiseguy will gobble up this witty, geeks-rule debut.

Personal Reaction: Mature content similar to Stuck in Neutral‘s obsession with female anatomy, but with a sign language Hardy Boys (and Nancy Drew-ish cameo) twist. It was very dark, yet engrossing.

Any Cautions: I read Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator (also by Berk) a few years ago. My summary notes for that title are – HS only. I laughed, but this book is packed full of penis humor and “that’s what your mother said” jokes. This book has similar YA humor. HS math teacher’s physical relationship with football captain and his posting of trophy snapshots from his conquests online should be taken into consideration for recommendations.

Curriculum or discussion topics: Bullying, hearing impaired history/education, coal mining

Connections to other books: I like the smart/witty characters with a snarky attitude. Try Berk’s other books or Neutral by Trueman mentioned above. John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines or The Boxer and the Spy by Parker, are good, too. For middle grades, go with Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer by Grisham, I,Q by Smith or The Last Thing I Remember by Klavan (completely awesome). Non-fiction companions: Signing Illustrated and Growing Up in Coal Country.

Items to display with book: “Deaf child in area” sign, a box  of Hamburger Helper? I have never heard of a texting device called a Crony, but if you can find one (I guess any kind of tablet will do) or a photo, it would be cool; or, a printout of a text conversation from book. Fake beard & moustache, dark glasses. Private notebook.  Lump of coal. Map of (northeastern) Pennsylvania. Football helmet. Fake Facebook page for Leigha or Purple. Stuffed black dog. Pack of fanned out playing cards (party invitations), especially face cards.

Food items connected to story: Anything will do, served on a cafeteria tray for that extra touch – pizza, fried ravioli, ice cream, hamburgers, broccoli casserole


The Dead Boys by Royce Buckingham

The author’s website (doesn’t mention DB except in bio) There is a video trailer on his website for another book, Goblins! which I liked very much, though there are a few curse words in that one.  Here is a fan-made video trailer for Dead Boys.

Summary from There’s a dark side to Teddy’s new town…

When Teddy Mathews moves to Richland, his main concern is making new friends. But something is not right about this quiet desert town: All the boys he meets seem to vanish before his eyes, while the imposing shadows of the giant tree outside his house appear to be hiding more than darkness.

With the branches of the massive sycamore scratching at his window, Teddy’s life becomes a waking nightmare that no one else believes. Can Teddy escape the tree’s terrifying grasp and solve the mystery of the missing boys before he becomes the next boy to disappear?

Personal Reaction: Very dark and very twisted story. I get that this is a supernatural thriller, but at the end I kept wondering how a kid would survive being held hostage for years without food/water while being part of the tree’s fertilizer.

Curriculum or discussion topics: Environmentalism?

Connections to other books: (I kept coming back to the movie Poltergeist for the creepy tree imagery.) I can’t think of any other evil tree books! I would definitely recommend House of Dark Shadows by Liparulo for fans of Dead Boys. How about Thirteen Days to Midnight by Carman, Revenge of the Witch by Delaney (movie on the way), and City of the Dead by Abbott for creepy suspense?

Items to display with book: photo of creepy gnarled old tree next to dilapidated house, photo of nuclear power plant, photo of housing development in desert or construction site;  real or fake news articles about missing boys; sand; old yearbooks

Food items connected to story: water, granola bars, milk/cereal

Fight Game by Kate Wild

Author’s myspace account hosts a book trailer, but the website it references has been disabled. It was posted in 2007 and, as far as I know, there are no plans for a movie.

Summary: Freedom Smith is a gypsy boy who can’t stay out of trouble. (There’s a mystery about him – he remembers being kidnapped, stuck with a needle, and returned to his home without anyone being the wiser.) In his latest scrape, he is accused of murder and is offered the chance to escape punishment if he will help the authorities (a secret group called Phoenix) infiltrate an underground fight club run by an evil man named Darkus Knight. Darkus would love for Freedom to fight in his illegal and profitable gambling fight club.

Personal Reaction: This book was brought to my attention by an 8th grade boy who never read much, but could not get enough of this series. That’s a winner of a recommendation for me, so I knew I had to find out what it was about.  Whatever you do, do NOT listen to the audiobook! It just ruined the whole thing for me and I could barely get through it without laughing. The male narrator does an admirable job on Freedom, but everything else is hideous (Java, Ant, Darkus – awful). I started this book in July 2012 and just kept stopping my listening because it irritated me so much.

I think kids could probably get over the silliness of some of the details in order to enjoy the story. I would have appreciated it more if it was only about Freedom and the fight club. I think Darkus could have been a menacing figure without bringing in all the gene-splicing, altar worshipping, zombie brainwashing. The dark side of human nature works just fine in fiction without the extra fantastical stuff.

Connections to other books: Like a fighter with a heart? Try The Contender by Lipsyte  or The Boxer and the Spy *mature content by Parker (boxing), or The Last Thing I Remember by Klavan (karate). Or, learn self-defense moves with nonfiction: Self-Defense for Women by Soo-Warr and Krav Maga and Self-Defense by Byers are just a few of the titles available on fighting and mixed martial arts. I suppose if the gene-splicing subtext strikes your fancy, you could try DNA and RNA (Understanding Genetics) by Hall. I am not aware of any books about gypsy/traveller culture, but there is information available online.

Items to display with book: backpack, trailer/caravan model, old sneakers, monopoly money, boxing ring model, hoodie sweeatshirt

Food items connected to story: Because it took me so long to listen to this audiobook, all I can remember was that Freedom was a sucker for spicy foods. A popular location from the book is a local ice-cream parlor which served Knickerbocker Glories.

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


Dragon’s Mind: Dragon & Myth #1 by Vered Ehsani

Dragon’s Mind: Dragon & Myth #1 by Vered Ehsani

Links: Author’s website and the video book trailer made by her 12 year old son.

Summary: Mind Operating System or “MindOpS” (aka Dragon) is the lab-created brain that runs all the systems on this vacation island. Myranda Thalia Johannson (aka Myth) is the bi-racial teenage daughter of one of the elite scientists who works on the MindOpS project. Myth is working on a thesis to allow Dragon to choose an avatar, a holographic projection of himself in human form, to make it easier for humans to interact with him. When Dragon selects an image not provided in the files, he discovers that he has a memory of himself as a real human and then realizes that he’s a brain harvested from a murdered man rather than a lab-created mass. Then the Games Boss and the Albino move in…

Personal Reaction: I liked it. It was simple, but well-written and I’d be interested in seeing where it goes in book 2. There are an awful lot of virtual brains running things out there.

Any Cautions: Murder and political bribery are mentioned, not graphic.

Curriculum or discussion topics: Gambling addiction (or even gaming addiction) is briefly addressed. You can discuss teen gaming or Internet habits or even local issues with Internet gambling establishments, lottery, etc.

Connections to other books: There are lots available on the Artificial Intelligence theme, machines with feelings, etc… or at least I thought there was until I tried to come up with a specific title that I’ve read that was similar for middle graders. Help me out with a suggestion?

Reminds me of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey by Clarke or even I, Robot by Asimov, but those are for a much more advanced reader (grade 11+). Biographies or nonfiction on the developers/development of brain science, computer systems and/or AI: Cool Careers Without College for People Who Love Video Games by Croce, Artificial Intelligence by Margulies, Robot Brains by Jefferis, The Brain by Simon, Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science by Fleischman, etc.

Items to display with book: Video game consoles, lottery tickets, computer network equipment & cables, photos of a human brain (or even better… a realistic, squishy model or one preserved in formaldehyde), cell phone, ear piece/ear bud, and a non-working Taser gun.

Food items connected to story: brief references to Chinese food takeout (spring rolls); sandwich, bottle of water. Not much for the book party!