BookTalk: Booked

bookedEnergy. If I had to describe Kwame Alexander’s Booked (2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) in a word, that would be it. Energy shines through even on the book jacket, where a soccer player is poised to kick a ball. The book is composed of poems that use varying fonts, white space, and phrases to denote sounds, motion, excitement, and tension. For someone who claims to hate words, narrator Nick Hall uses them to good effect. He’s not thrilled at having a linguistics professor for a father, who forces him to read the dictionary he wrote called Weird and Wonderful Words (p. 4). Nick perceives himself as living in a prison of words, yet the reader can readily see how this immersion has provided him a vehicle for expressing his emotions. His emotions are strong as he faces his parents’ separation and impending divorce, as well as school dilemmas involving friends, teachers, a new girlfriend, bullies, and soccer.

One of my favorite characters in Booked is the school librarian, Mr. MacDonald. Perhaps it’s because I like his collection of t-shirts with slogans that promote reading. (The wearable text does not go unnoticed by our word hater, Nick.) Which shirt would I most like to have? “FREADOM” (p. 152)? “Similes are like metaphors….” (p. 77)? No, I think I would have to choose the shirt about my favorite literary element: “Irony: The Opposite of Wrinkly” (p. 42).


Appropriate for middle school and high school

physical education, ELA

BookTalk: The Boys in the Boat

by Sharon Kane

boysinboatI will admit, I like reading nonfiction books that were first written and published for an adult market and then adapted for a younger audience, and sharing them with the teens and pre-service teachers I work with. My latest reading adventure of this type involved The Boys in the Boat: The True Story of an American Team’s Epic Journey to Win Gold at the 1936 Olympics, written by Daniel James Brown and adapted for young readers by Gregory Mone (Viking, 2015). The story focuses mainly on the youth Joe Rantz, though it is hard to single out one protagonist when it was the team effort that made the unlikely and amazing victory in the Olympic rowing race a reality.

The author met Joe Rantz toward the end of Joe’s life, but Joe was still able and ready to tell the story. Joe’s childhood was filled with hardship and sadness. His mother died when he was four, and that was the beginning of a series of losses and betrayals. For example, when Joe was ten, his stepmother demanded that his father choose between Joe and her. His father turned him over to the local schoolteacher, having made a deal that the child would sleep at the school in exchange for splitting wood to keep the fireplace stoked. Joe learned to care for himself and not depend on or trust anyone.

As a college student at Washington State, Joe’s background both helped and hindered him as a member of the crew team. It helped him be strong and disciplined, but a team has to work together, trust each other, and be willing to sacrifice for the others, and these things came hard for him. Luckily, there were mentors on his archetypal hero’s journey, and Joe learned how to forgive and to love.

In a note from the author preceding this edition, Daniel James Brown speaks fondly of the young people who talk to him at book signings about their own goals. The story of the nine team members who rowed past the Italians, past the Germans, and past Hitler when the odds were against them kindles the young people’s desire to persist, even after failed attempts. Brown recounts:

It is easy for those of us who are older and count ourselves wise to forget that it is the young who most often move the world forward. It is the young who have the boundless energy, passion, optimism, courage, and idealism to try to do what we elders might say is impossible. That’s what the boys in the boat attempted to do in this story. That’s why, eighty years later at my book-signing table, old men and women come to me with tears in their eyes, proudly remembering when they were young and full of fire. And it’s why standing right next to them are young men and women with beaming faces, bearing tales of their own brave attempts at the near impossible. (xi)

Reading this book made me want to read more about the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I know many other stories from that event intertwine with this one. And I can’t wait to visit high school classrooms to give book talks about this book in conjunction with others that relate to that time and place. I think I’ll pair it with the fictional The Berlin Boxing Club, by Robert Sharenow (2011, HarperTeen) and Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction account Unbroken: An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive (the Young Adult Adaptation, 2014, Delacorte).

Little did those boys in the boat know that in 2016 their story would be making history come alive for readers of all ages.


-Appropriate for middle school and high school

(physical education, history, psychology, ELA)

BookTalk: Stand Off

by Sharon Kane

standoffWinger (2013) was the first book I read by Andrew Smith, and the narrator, 14-year-old rugby player Ryan Dean West, won a place in my heart. He faces many challenges, partly because he skipped two grades and became a junior in a boarding school among classmates and teammates who are older. In the sequel, Stand Off (2015, Simon & Schuster), Ryan Dean returns for his senior year much taller, but he also has bigger problems, including grief over his friend Joey’s violent death. (Readers of Winger know that Joey’s death was caused by a hate crime connected to his homosexuality.) Ryan Dean wakes up at night in terror, and constantly feels a haunting presence he has named NATE (Next Accidental Terrible Experience). This of course affects his relationship with others, including his 12-year-old freshman roommate, Sam, and the love of his life, Annie. Despite the sadness, depression, isolation, and near-despair he trudges through, Ryan Dean is funny! He addresses questions to the reader that can run on for most of a page. “Okay, so, you know how sometimes you arrive late to a party, or, let’s say, to rugby practice, and you see two of the guests—or in this case, two of your teammates—involved in a heated confrontation that you can’t really hear but you know is heated because of the way they’re standing and how the veins on their necks are sticking out and they’ve got their hands on their hips and one foot angled back like they were already thinking about boxing….” (p. 277). (It goes on for another 75 words or so, but you get the idea.)

Annie, parents, friends, and teachers all worry about his state of mind, body, heart and spirit. Then he meets Joey’s younger brother, Nico, who is fighting his own battles with grief and does not want Ryan Dean or anyone else for a friend. When he meets Nico, our narrator begins to feel a sense of purpose, maybe even hope, and he visits a counselor and takes other steps toward recovery. If it sounds like the story might become didactic, don’t worry. The humor, sports action, and wild antics keep it authentic and non-preachy.

I would love to follow Ryan Dean West to college. Please bring us there, Andrew Smith!


Appropriate for high school

(physical education, psychology, ELA)

BookTalk: The Berlin Boxing Club

by Sharon Kane

berlinboxingclub_coverI am not normally drawn to the subject of boxing, but on the recommendation of my 83-year-old friend Lorraine, I gave The Berlin Boxing Club, by Robert Sharenow (2011, HarperTeen), a try. I’m able to report that I both enjoyed the story and learned some history. The narrator is fourteen-year-old Karl Stern, who is increasingly overwhelmed by the negative changes occurring during the mid-1930s. His family had been financially secure, but his father has difficulty acquiring and selling art now that the German government has banned Jewish art and caused artists to disappear in one way or another. Karl had always had friends and done well in school, but suddenly his peers are wearing the uniform of the Hitler Youth, and he is being bullied and scorned by both students and teachers. He watches as Jewish businesses are boycotted and looted. And he can’t figure out why he is in the hated group—his family doesn’t even practice any religion!

Despite the political turmoil surrounding him, several aspects of Karl’s life are getting better. He begins his first romantic relationship, though a secret one. His cartooning skills are improving as his passion for art grows. And he takes boxing lessons from champion Max Schmeling. The mentoring and discipline help him improve physically, mentally, and emotionally; and he forms true friendships at the boxing club. Unfortunately, Hitler’s power grows, and even the boxing world is affected by the anti-Semitism that is seemingly everywhere.

Karl is expelled from school; his family loses their home; a beloved uncle dies in a concentration camp. This reader found herself saying, “Get out! Escape!”

You’ll have to read the book to find out the resolution. One of my favorite parts was the Author’s Note, which gives fascinating information about German boxing champion Max Schmeling. After losing the World Championship to Joe Louis, he was drafted by the government and given the dangerous duty of paratrooper. He really did rescue Jewish boys on Kristallnacht, as recounted in the novel. He was reunited with former rival Joe Louis on TV in the 1950s, and even served as a pallbearer at his funeral. He lived to be almost 100, dying in 2005. I knew nothing of Schmeling before reading this book. Now I have a desire to learn much more about this fascinating man living through a complicated, frightening, tragic historical period.


Appropriate for middle school and high school