Book Review: The Hazel Wood

The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood, #1)The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Life never turns out how you imagine it will when you’re young. Everything is smaller than you think, or too big. It all smells a little funny and fits like somebody else’s shirt.”

I received this book as a part of my Owlcrate subscription and at first, it didn’t really seem to be my cup of tea. I generally like fantasy, but YA fantasy tends to be a little … too much for me. I considered just shelving this in my classroom and calling it a day.

Man, am I glad I didn’t.

First of all, Melissa Albert’s prose is enchanting. Her style grabbed me and wrapped me in a giant fluffy body pillow. I had thought that book might be pure fluff, but when Alice starts off the book by talking about her near-kidnapping, I knew this would be more of the darker side of fantasy, and when Twice-Killed Katherine appeared, I knew that this was the book for me.

I had just finished reading Get in Trouble, and this was the perfect YA follow-up to Link’s dark magic realism, with Albert adding a little bit more magic to the realism. I wanted more of the Hinterland, and when I discovered it was a series, I was very excited. I cannot wait to read the rest!

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Book Review: Scythe

Scythe (Arc of a Scythe, #1)Scythe by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book primarily because the art on it is simply amazing. I know this book has been popular with the YA crowd, but I didn’t pick it up until it was on my school’s list for Battle of the Books.
The synopsis had me rolling my eyes a little bit – teenagers acting as death? I wasn’t so sure about it. I read it anyway. After the first couple of chapters, I still wasn’t quite convinced. It seems as though there would be a better way of controlling a population boom than government (or Thunderhead, as it may be) condoned murder.
However, this book did end up better than I anticipated. I still have problems with the premise – I have questions about how exactly the population is staying under control if the Scythes are not murdering people every second.
I did feel as though Rowan and Citra were fully realized characters, and I appreciated the twists and turns of the story. However, I am not entirely sure I was sold enough to read the rest of the series.

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The truth of my seismographs is the story of my life, in a much smaller, compact form.
A couple years ago, I was looking for a new way to teach poetry and nothing was really speaking to me – So I did what most do, I pulled together an amalgamation of different things until I had created a beast that I could experiment with until it was tamed.

I called it a Seismograph, as I wanted something that measured the impact of words – how a poem affects us at the most base, emotional level. Does it shake you to your core? Or just give you a little goosebump?

When I finally fleshed out my idea and sent it out into the classroom, I was overjoyed. It worked! It made sense to the kids, and I began to use my seismographs regularly in my classroom.

Then, last summer, I attended an AP Literature training. One day the instructor pulled out a short story called “The Lifeguard” by Mary Morris and said, “Today we will be doing what I call ‘Literary Seismographs.’”

Whelp, I thought, another brilliant idea that turns out not to be mine after all.

But don’t fear, dear reader, for I did not let this stop me from continuing my love of the literary seismograph. My version looks a little different than the one the instructor at my training used, so I continue to consider it my own (I’ve even joked about renaming them ‘Parke-mo-graphs’).

How does it work?

Seismographs are useful for close reading, and can be used with poetry or prose. With prose, I wouldn’t use more than a couple pages of text- the point is to understand the author’s choice of words and wording. Therefore, it makes it an excellent activity for trying to reach standard RL.2.4.

First, students are assigned a passage. In the examples below, students read the first three pages of Atonement by Ian McEwan. Those students then star or highlight the lines that really stuck out to them. I usually ask them to keep the number of lines they choose to 5-7.

After they find the lines that affect them, I have them rate the level of impact on a scale of 1-10. Then, they plot it on a graph similar to the one below:


On each point of impact, they write the quote that impacted them.

After plotting all their quotes, they then have the hard task – discovering what the author has done to make this impact happen. Is it foreshadowing? Alliteration? More importantly, what does it do for the piece? What is the purpose of those lines in the larger scale of the work?

Here are some examples from Atonement:

And some examples from “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou:

After the seismograph activity, students can use the quotes they analyzed to springboard into analytical writing – how do these lines relate to the work as a whole?
Overall, students in my classes seem to like the activity – some even get excited when they see it listed on the agenda. One student told me that she enjoys seismographs because “it’s easy and I get it, I don’t feel like I’m struggling for the answer.” I also like that it helps reinforce that what a reader gets out of a text differs from person to person, and that’s okay!

I’ve noticed that essays that spring from these activities use stronger evidence and elaboration, and I encourage my students to consider using seismographs as a planning activity when trying to suss out an essay.

Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to comment below!

An Optimist Deals with Death

I’ve been a positive person my entire life – not because I believe that everything will work out in the end, or that “things happen for a reason,” but because in this short life, there is, in my purview, no reason to go through it sad. I enjoy moments, find joy in them, save them for another time when I need them. I am Billy Pilgrim, returning to a sun-soaked snooze in a wheelbarrow during my time of strife.

But there are times when it seems like all the positive attitude I can muster is not enough to battle the very real monsters knocking on my door. Yesterday, four hours from my home, my work, my school, another angry, violent white male decided that it was his right to take the lives of seventeen others.

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. I watched as young boys struggled to hoist teddy bears taller than themselves through the gates of the parking lot, hoping to catch their girlfriends (how long has it been? a week, a month, a year? All an eternity to them) before they get to class so they don’t have to carry it around all day. Girls decked out in pinks and reds, and even I got into the spirit, donning a cream dress embroidered with red hearts.

When I got home, my husband and daughter greeted me with love, arms outstretched to welcome me home after a cheerful day of happy students, happy teachers, happy classrooms.

Then the news came. Instead of students walking home with outlandish Valentine’s gifts, I imagined abandoned stuffed animals strewn across classroom floors, left behind after the SWAT teams evacuated their would-be recipients. Balloons tied to lockers meant as a celebration of life and love, now macabre markers, alerting authorities as to where they should be looking for the bodies.

It’s hard to be an optimist on a normal day. On a day like this, it’s impossible – I know that nothing will come of this. In a year there will be a memorial. A pro-gun control group will remind us what happened, but others will have forgotten. But it will happen again, because nothing will be done to stop it.

As I watch my students come through my doors today, they will know that I love them, that I see them, that they matter to me. I will find joy in them, in my work. I will find joy with my family, with my home. But I will not be optimistic for a future that I cannot believe in.

Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

9780385363563A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So let’s get this out of the way. One of the worst lines I have ever read in a novel resides in this book. It is:
“Akhmed’s head hummed with the shock of how not shocked he was.”

Yep. That’s there.

Thankfully, that was the outlier. The story of this book started like a slow boil, and became so enchanting that by the end, I couldn’t wait to read it. I still can’t think of those last few pages without crying, and I’m still affected by it a week later.

Best dollar store purchase yet.

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Book Review – Ship Breaker

ShipBreakerPaoloBacigalupiShip Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my third Bacigalupi novel and so far they all follow the same pattern. Male protagonist lives in a not too distant future where everything has gone to shit (lack of water, genetic modifications, climate change) and works at some unusual post-apocalyptic job (water knife, whatever the dude from windup girl did, ship breaker) and falls in love with a mysterious girl from a different social class (poor desert girl, wind up girl, swank) and must decide if he should leave the world he knows out of love of this girl.
And the title is the job of one of the main characters.

There, now you don’t have to read any of them.

Just kidding, I loved “The Water Knife.”

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