Whistling Past the Graveyard review

**I was provided a copy of this book by netgalley.com in exchange for my review.

Whistling Past the Graveyard

Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall

From Goodreads: The summer of 1963 begins like any other for nine-year-old Starla Claudelle. Born to teenage parents in Mississippi, Starla is being raised by a strict paternal grandmother, Mamie, whose worst fear is that Starla will turn out like her mother. Starla hasn’t seen her momma since she was three, but is convinced that her mother will keep her promise to take Starla and her daddy to Nashville, where her mother hopes to become a famous singer—and that one day her family will be whole and perfect.

When Starla is grounded on the Fourth of July, she sneaks out to see the parade. After getting caught, Starla’s fear that Mamie will make good on her threats and send her to reform school cause her to panic and run away from home. Once out in the country, Starla is offered a ride by a black woman, Eula, who is traveling with a white baby. She happily accepts a ride, with the ultimate goal of reaching her mother in Nashville.

As the two unlikely companions make their long and sometimes dangerous journey, Starla’s eyes are opened to the harsh realities of 1963 southern segregation. Through talks with Eula, reconnecting with her parents, and encountering a series of surprising misadventures, Starla learns to let go of long-held dreams and realizes family is forged from those who will sacrifice all for you, no matter if bound by blood or by the heart.

My review: Nine year old Starla lives in the south in the 1960s with her grandmother. Her father works on an oil rig and rarely gets to visit, and her mother left when Starla was three and moved to Nashville to become a singer. When Starla runs away to find her mother, she finds herself in heaps of disastrous situations. Caught in a turbulent time between southern whites and African Americans, Starla learns more about the world, and herself, than she had ever anticipated.

While the story lines in this book at times feel very familiar, the tone, style, and language feel very authentic and original. I liked Starla from page one, and found her spunky, full-of-life attitude entertaining. The dialogue was rich and well-written, though I might have preferred more description of time and place to fill in the stories a bit more. I love that the ending was not all peaches-and-cream, and some works of fiction tend to be. Overall, I would recommend this book to those who enjoyed Secret Life of Bees, The Help, and Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. When it is released in the stories I will also be picking up a copy for my students’ historical fiction projects, since its easy, engaging plot will probably appeal to my high school kids.


With or Without You review

**I was provided a copy of this novel from netgalley.com in exchange for my review. This book will be published in late March 2013.

With or Without You

With or Without You by Domenica Rutka

Goodreads summary: Domenica Ruta grew up in Danvers, Massachusetts, in a ramshackle, rundown, trash-filled house with her mother, a drug dealer and user who raised Domenica on a steady diet of Oxycontin. Growing up, Domenica knew she didn’t fit in-she was far smarter and worse dressed than everyone else she knew, and she clearly had the most flamboyant mother of anyone in town-but she found solace in writing and reading. As she grew older, though, and as her mother’s behavior grew increasingly outrageous and her home life increasingly untenable, Domenica fled Danvers only to become ensnared by the demons of addiction.

A thoroughly textured and masterfully written book, layered with wildly colorful characters, a biting sense of humor, and penetrating, deeply sympathetic insights, With or Without You finally ends with Domenica’s increasing awareness that she must leave the life she grew up with in order to survive.


My review:

I typically love a good memoir. In fact, many of the books that have stuck with me the longest have been memoirs. This, however, will probably not stick with me much past today.

In order to write a memoir, you should either a.) be famous for something or b.) have some terribly horrific/inspiring/life-altering/ mind-blowing story to tell. Rutka has neither. I still can’t figure out why someone decided her story is any different from the hundreds of kids in my high school, the thousands of people in my town, or the many millions of Americans who have led lives exactly like hers. I can find no discernible reason why one should read this book or care about this story beyond the typical empathy we possess for any normal human being.

All that being said, I could have enjoyed a memoir that was well-told simply because of my love for good writing. I could have forgiven her for being unimportant (because, really, aren’t most of our lives individually unimportant to the masses?) if she’d just told a decent story. So here’s the crux- I really, really disliked the method of delivery of this story too. The first half skips willy-nilly through the 1980’s, 90’s, and well into the 00’s with absolutely NO discernible path or pattern. One minute she’s 3 in the early 80’s, a page later 16 in the 90’s, and then back to fresh-from-the-womb paragraphs after that. It’s maddening in its irregularity. While there were parts that were well-written, even mildly entertaining, overall I found this book whiny, bitchy, and wholly unsympathetic.

Perhaps this book would sit better with me if Rutka were even a decade removed from her tale of addiction and despair. As it sits, however, all I found was someone fresh off her ordeal with no ability to provide perspective on her recovery. It just left me repeating “So what?” and “Who cares” over and over again.

MRA in Review


This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending the Michigan Reading Association Annual Conference for the second year in a row.  I love attending MRA because not only do I get to catch up with some of my amazing friends and fellow educators, but I am always inspired after attending.  MRA gives me an extra boost to get through the last third of the school year.

Friday night was a great night of fellowship with my Nerdy Book Club friends.  These people are amazing!  And guess what…you probably are already a member!  Do you like to read?  You do?  Membership granted.  In all seriousness, check out their blog here.  Very inspiring and motivating and a great community of readers.

I went to a number of sessions on Saturday.  I just want to go over some highlights so not to overwhelm with too much information…

Male/Female Differences that Affect Literacy

This session was just fascinating!  It talked about the differences in brain development among males and females.  Probably the strongest point that hit me is that both males and females do not reach convergence (when both eyes focus) until the age of 7!  And when do we start school?  In Michigan, the age is currently 5.  Finland, a country with amazing reading scores, does not start until 7.  There is something to said here.  I also understand a little more about behaviors my students exhibit in class – and behaviors of my husband as well!

Short Reads for Tall Kids with Ruth Culham

I have heard a little about the 6 +1 Traits when it comes to writing.  However, I did not know too much since it is very geared to elementary and middle school.  I am so glad I went to this session!  There are definite applications to high school.  Culham showed us how mentor texts help with writing, as I have definitely learned, and how to apply the traits to help students revise.  In writing, I really have to work on revising.  It is so important to the process and yet, it gets ignored quite a bit.  You can learn more about Culham’s work here.

Literature Circles in Secondary Classroom

To be honest, there are a few other sessions I would have liked to see at this time as I look back.  This was more about Lit Circles in general and we have been using them for two years now.  (Though I will admit I am nowhere near an expert!)  I did pick up on a few great ideas.  First of all, use literature circles with informational texts.  Genius really.  I also want to try lit circles with whole class books as well.  I plan on trying that in Honors 10 this coming trimester.  Jacqueline and I are already planning how to do it in English 10 B as well.

Lightship Titles with Paul W. Hankins

I had the honor to meet Paul last year at MRA and enjoy following him on Twitter and his posts on Facebook as well.  He shared some great titles and reminded us the power of sharing books with our students.  I appreciated his honesty and what he shared with us.  Community is so important for readers.  I can always be reminded of that and appreciate my community, or “tribe,” each and every day.

On to Sunday…

Close Reading with Erica Beaton and Dave Stuart

With the CCSS, close reading is very important.  Erica and Dave did an EXCELLENT job showing how there are many things we are already doing that supports CCSS and helps our students all the more.  They gave a great purpose for close reading – to support our understanding and doing something with the information.  They gave a great process to follow in close reading and they helped me reconsider how I approach argumentative writing and how to help my students develop their arguments.  They have posted their Prezi which I highly recommend you check out and follow up by reading their blogs and Tweets.

Reading Notebooks

I learned that, basically, I need 150 page notebooks to make sure my students are using them to write and talk about reading.  Another goal is that I do want to use notebooks more for writing AND reading.  I also learned about an excellent resource at Biblionasium.  It’s like Goodreads but tailored more for the classroom.  I am introducing it to my Lab kids next week.  I’m excited to see where this takes us!

Kelly Gallagher Keynote

A perfect way to end the conference was with Kelly Gallagher!  I have seen him before talk about reading and I loved hearing more about his approaches to writing.  Writing is so vital to our students’ success.  And students need mentor texts to learn how to write.  They also need practice.  My ultimate goal with writing is to encourage more revising and help my students see what a process writing really is.

I cannot wait for MRA next year!  They teased us with a look at next year…make sure you consider being there!  I am so thankful to my colleagues, friends, and fellow Nerdy Book Club members for an inspiring weekend!

Rotten – A Review

Title: Rotten

Author: Michael Northrop

Release Date: April 1, 2013

Source: e-book from NetGalley

Summary (from Goodreads): Jimmer “JD” Dobbs is back in town after spending the summer “upstate.” No one believes his story about visiting his aunt, and it’s pretty clear that he has something to hide. It’s also pretty clear that his mom made a new friend while he was away—a rescued Rottweiler that JD immediately renames Johnny Rotten (yes, after that guy in the Sex Pistols). Both tough but damaged, JD and Johnny slowly learn to trust each other, but their newfound bond is threatened by a treacherous friend and one snap of Johnny’s powerful jaws. As the secrets JD has tried so hard to keep under wraps start to unravel, he suddenly has something much bigger to worry about: saving his dog.

Jessica’s Review:

I came across this title as I was clicking through NetGalley.  The cover had me immediately as I am a HUGE fan of dogs.  Anyone who knows me can tell you that.  The idea of the main character connected to a rescue dog pulled me in.  I put in a request, got my approval, and started reading.

Overall, I enjoyed the book.  It was a pretty quick read.  It is clear that JD did not stay with his aunt and I felt like his friends, wanting to know how he really spent his summer.  JD did not seem like a “bad boy” at all, so I really wondered what he could have done.  I also loved Johnny Rotten as a character in the book.  He went through quite a bit – being chained and beat – before JD’s mom rescued him from the shelter.  I really liked watching Johnny and JD’s relationship blossom as they learned to trust each other and JD learned there was more to Johnny than his tough outside.  I feared for Johnny’s fate after one of JD’s friends, Mars, claimed Johnny bit him unprovoked and his family sues JD and his mom.  As JD fights for his dog, we see the many sides of JD as he learns to come to terms with his past and his present.

One thing I really liked about this book is how it hit on the issue of stereotypes against “bully breeds.”  Johnny is a Rottweiler, one of the most misunderstood of dog breeds, probably after Pit Bulls.  Being a proud Pit Bull owner and lover of all dogs, I appreciate how Northrop addresses this issue as JD fights for Johnny.  Many dogs have a lot stacked against them just because of the misconceptions that are out there.  Johnny had some growing to do in order to trust people, especially males.  But at his heart, he was a sweet dog that was just looking for companionship.  I’m glad to see a book for teens that brings this up for teens to think about.

This is an enjoyable book and one I look forward to adding to my classroom.  I can see reluctant drawn to this and enjoying it.  Overall – 3/5 stars.